When a mosque in suburban Virginia became the target of a firebomb attack, faith leaders decided that rather than turn inward, it was the moment to embrace the local community.
The incident occurred just six days after Daesh-claimed gunmen attacked multiple sites in Paris, claiming the lives of 130 victims in mid-November.
As he recalls the attack on his mosque that closely followed, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, the mosque’s outreach director, said the point of opening the mosque’s doors for an open Thanksgiving meal was to fight the irrational fears that fed into the attack.
“We have two choices,” he said. “Either we’re going to live in freedom, or we’re going to live in fear, and we know that this fear is irrational – that the person who threw the Molotov cocktail was unstable and afraid.”
“Why don’t you just let him in?” he asked himself rhetorically.
That kind of outreach may be crucial in thwarting rising distrust and anti-Muslim sentiments following the Paris attacks and on outside of Los Angeles in which a husband and wife killed 14 people at a holiday party.
According to the Pew Research Center, an individual who knows a Muslim or Muslims is considerably more likely to rate the group favorably.
Moreover, data from the research center shows that Muslims rank lowest in favorability among the wider American public, polling at just 40 percent – close only to Atheists at 41 percent.
The vast majority of other religious groups hover somewhere between 50-60 percent.
“The American public is largely uninformed about Islam and Muslims, but as much as they have formed opinions they tend to be fairly negative,” Pew senior researcher Besheer Mohamed said.
While the polling organization does not have data on the views of the American public after either the Paris or California attacks, a leading Muslim civil rights group is warning of a spike in anti-Muslim attacks and discrimination following the fatal tragedies.
“There’s a great deal of fear in the Muslim community right now as to what the future is,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American Islamic Relations. “People are extremely fearful right now about what’s going to happen.”
The most recent information from the advocacy group, dated Nov. 24 – between the Paris and California assaults – warns of “unprecedented backlash” against Muslim Americans.
The organization said it “has received more reports about acts of Islamophobic discrimination, intimidation, threats, and violence targeting American Muslims [or those perceived to be Muslim] and Islamic institutions in the past week-and-a-half than during any other limited period of time since the 9/11 terror attacks.”
That trend has not changed since, Hooper said.
“Unfortunately they were already at a high level going into that attack,” he said. “Its been continuing since the San Bernardino killings as well.”
While Americans watched from afar as militants massacred scores in the French capital, the attack near Los Angeles brought fears much closer to home.
“If we said after Paris, alright, you could call this Islamophobia, this is an irrational fear of Islam and Muslims,” Abdul-Malik, the Imam said, then “after San Bernardino the fear becomes more rational, which is – something really happened in my neighborhood, in my country, by a person that the rest of us thought was normal.”
Authorities believe Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, had been radicalized since at least 2013.
They were able to live what appeared to be normal lives in the U.S., with Farook holding a job at a local government agency, and the couple having just welcomed an infant daughter into their family. But below the surface were ulterior motives that went undetected until they erupted violently earlier this month.
The deceit has led some toward greater prejudice against Muslim Americans.
A worshiper who attends the Dar al-Hijrah mosque and wished to remain anonymous said that since the attacks he has feared for the safety of his wife, who wears an Islamic head covering.
“We are careful whenever we are going out,” he said. “These days we just restrict our movements.”
A recent proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has only heightened concerns among some Muslims.
“What went through my mind was how outrageous and ignorant the comment was,” said Fazia Deen, outreach coordinator at Dar al-Hijrah.
A recent town hall meeting at the mosque brought to light just how dire the situation is presently.
“What touched me the most were the children who actually spoke out,” she said. “We had one child who said ‘my friend wears a scarf and the kids were laughing and pulling at it, and told her to take it off.’ Another child said they wanted her to go home – go back to where she came from.”
But even amidst growing fears and confrontations, Deen said she has faith in a better tomorrow.
“This too shall pass,” she said.