by Guest Contributor Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed
I stepped out of my car, pink skies streaking dusky blues overhead. The hot desert heat stung my skin while the temperature simultaneously dropped dramatically, stirring up that Maghrib winds that conjures up images of swooping invisible jinns snatching at your uncovered hair. Apprehensively I stood, looking first at the large American flag gracing the chain linked fence of the house across the street. I then looked at the mosque, which was really just a 1970s California ranch style house that was being used as a mosque–the Al Nur Mosque located in Ontario, CA. It was hard to think that this was the “scary Mozlem temple” that elicited three pig feet being thrown in the driveway only days earlier by two women in a white truck during the sacred late night Ramadan prayers.
Last time I had been in a mosque was last year when my mother had died, and the last time I had been in this mosque was for the special prayer we held 48 hours after her burial. It was the most spiritually connected moment of my life. I hadn’t been that connected since then, and it held me paralyzed as I stood breathlessly by my car. I wondered how I’d be accepted in this space, showing up alone without my Mom by my side. She was my community conduit. The mosque was created and attended by the Bangladeshi immigrant community that raised me but I was an adult now and building my own communities. But the events of the week weighed down terribly on me, and I knew that I had to be present in this particular mosque as a show of solidarity–or maybe more as a statement. I practiced my Islam defiantly, wore my religion on my brown skin politically. I was Muslim, despite America’s fear.
I stepped into the backyard. I was greeted by foldable tables lined up in rows, paper tablecloths whipping in the wind. The tables were covered with plates of pakoras, channa, dates, and glasses of rose flavored pink drink. Men in white kurtas and thupees sat on one side of the yard, women with dupattas wrapped around their heads sat on the other. The imam caught my eye and smiled at me in recognition. I meekly smiled back. Last time I had seen him we had gotten into a fight over my insistence of having the women’s prayer section up front next to the men’s section for Mom’s funeral prayer instead of hidden in a back room. My Islam was radical in that way.
The mood was calm, normal even. There was no fear hanging in the air, nor were there giddy pleasantries. It felt placid. People saw me and nodded wordlessly, as if after all these years, they’d been expecting me. It had been a long hot day of 109 degrees and people were ready to break their fast. Somewhere in the house, the imam began azaan and the call for prayer. Dates were eaten, water sipped. The tables emptied quietly as people filtered in to pray and as if on cue the desert wind kicked up, knocking pink drinks all over the paper lined tables. The calm mood struck me as odd, but it made sense given the context. If there’s something you learn from a day of fasting in long and hot weather, it’s that you have no time for bullshit.
I, on the other hand, was festering from the weight of the Islamophobia of the week.
On the first few days of August in Oakland, CA, several South Asian organizers commenced the Bay Area Solidarity Summer (solidaritysummer.org) for the second year, a 4-day long camp on South Asian American activism for South Asian American teenagers. I was excited to share knowledge with the twelve youth that were attending this year. The first piece I had a role in was a curriculum that involved timelining the legacy of South Asian American history, connecting their personal activism with the legacy of South Asian American unheard history of activism.
The second was a workshop on Islamophobia that we conducted on Saturday night. Our curriculum walked them through islamophobic microagressions cases to larger systematic forms of oppression and state violence, and then finally, closing with tools to combat and resist. With about 75% of the youth being non-Muslims, our biggest concern with the workshop was emphasizing the need for pan-South Asian solidarity when it comes to being racialized as “Brown” in America and how Islamophobia wasn’t just a Muslim issue, but affected all communities of color. After a couple of hour of images, stats, and sharing various tools of resistance, we did a “group check-in” to see what tools the youth would take back with them to their community. Some said they would take what they learned back to student organizations on their campus, build alliances with Muslim groups, and have conversations with their family members. I thought the Islamophobia workshop had been a success, when one of the participants stated, “This is great–but it doesn’t affect my community. I don’t have to worry about this.”
I was stunned because it was clear that, as we had moved along through our narrative, we had missed this participant for some reason. Other participants spoke up, providing peer-to-peer insight and group dialogue. I wondered what we trainers could have done differently that would have worked and would have convinced this youth that Islamophobic terror was alive and well and needed solidarity, even by non-Muslims. And then we woke up Sunday morning to the devastating shooting at the Sikh Gurudwara in Oak Tree, Wisconsin. It is what they call a “teachable moment,” I guess.
It was I who broke the news of the shooting to our youth, after they came back from a community walk. I framed it in the context of the Islamophobia workshop from the night before. Their faces slackened, eyes went to the ground. We had a moment of silence. We kept open space for dialogue, if they wanted. They didn’t. We moved on in the curriculum, circling back to the event throughout the rest of the weekend.
I hated doing that.
I hate that, in order to train our youth to be activists and leaders, we need to teach them about the hate in the world and how they will be hated for things beyond their control. I hate how quickly and easily a real world example fell into our laps after a tough workshop on concepts that go above most people’s heads. I hate that it’s been over ten years since September 11th and that we are not done with this–and instead of backlash, fear of “the other Brown” is now intrinsically systematic within our society and media, with seven foundations having funding $42 million of Islamophobic hate (according to Fear, Inc.). I hate that feeling that four days wasn’t enough for the BASS training and that we didn’t give our youth enough tools, or education, or love to counter all the hate they will face as future organizers.
At the closing circle for BASS, each youth grabbed an image from the South Asian Legacy timeline, and shared why they were taking back that particular image with them. It was hard to close the safe and loving space we had created for our team of organizers and participants, knowing what was out there in the real world. As I drove down the I-5 away from Oakland back home to Los Angeles, I prayed that we had equipped our BASS youth with enough love and fire to face this grief filled unjust world as fighters and with bravado. Ameen.
In the days since the shooting and BASS, the events haven’t stopped. It is almost as if the white supremacists saw what happened in Wisconsin and were empowered even further to act out. In the past 11 days the South Asian community has been the recipient of eight attacks and counting. A mosque in Missouri was burned to the ground. Shots were fired from a pellet rifle at the wall of a mosque in Chicago. Nearby, a soda bottle full of acid was flung at an Islamic school. In Rhode Island, a man head-butted and took a hammer to a sign in front of a mosque and in Hayward, teens were caught pelting oranges and lemons at mosque attendees.
The incident in Ontario, CA, was minimal in comparison, though just as chilling. The small Bangladeshi community in the Inland Empire started meeting monthly in living rooms in the mid-90s. At the time, the mosques in the area were dominated by Pakistani and Arabs and there wasn’t a Bangladeshi space to pray. By the late 90s they had moved to an office space in a strip mall, across the street from a sex toy shop. They’ve since moved twice, this last time to a ranch house they bought tucked in the unincorporated part of the town. They’ve been raising money for years, with the hopes of building a mosque on the land the ranch house is on. But the neighbors have not been happy with this move and have been fighting every step of the way. The mosque has notices taped on the inside wall, letters from inspectors, that show that the congregation is not illegal as long as there are less than 500 people and that they have all the right permits in place.
As people met nightly for the daily taraweeh prayers in Ramadan, they saw women taking pictures of the mosque. They wouldn’t disclose their names when asked. A few days later, a white truck with two women was parked suspiciously in front of the mosque. Wary, the mosque hired a security guard. That very night, the white truck came back and two women dropped three pig feet on the driveway of the mosque at 10pm. The congregation finished their prayer, and when they were done around 11pm, they picked up the feet and threw them in the trash. They called up the San Bernardino’s Sherriff’s Department and are requesting that a full investigation be made and for this to be reported as a hate incident. Everyone came back to pray the very next day.
When I was at the mosque this weekend, I was comforted by the sound of Arabic prayers lilting through the dusky heat. There was something about it that reminded me of being home. I was a little taken aback when I came to that realization. In a way this was home. This was the mosque I was raised in; these were the community members that saw me grow from a child to an adult; and this was the community that helped bury my mother with all the beautiful Muslim rituals that escaped me only the year before. All the aunties shared sweet Ramadan memories of praying side by side with my mother. Here I was home in Islam, where I didn’t need to be defiantly Muslim after being subjected to othering–I had nothing to prove to anyone here. This was a community of folks that simply wanted to meet and pray together. Build a space where they could take care of each other. No political statement. Just spiritual and community.
I realized this weekend that, with all my organizing and activism, maybe the real revolutionaries were immigrants of our parents’ generation–building community with Islam and creating places of worship despite all the fear and racialization and otherizing put on them in this new world.
Solidarity is needed now more than ever before. We are four days away from Eid, a month away from September 11th and 3 months away from Election Day. Islamophobia escalates around these key days. As isolated events, the events of the week were intimidating–but as a collection of events it is reflective of the systematic oppression that is fueled by the right-wing Islamophobia machine. We must stand together to counter these actions. We must push the mainstream media and policymakers to bring light to these stories, as Naunihal so eloquently stated here. We must all visit mosques and gurudwaras and have interfaith dialogue. And we as a South Asian community, we need to continue to educate and our new generation about legacy, building unity, and real solidarity.
The name of the mosque is Al Nur which translates into a pure and godly inner light. Kind of fitting, I think. Let’s keep shining on.
Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed is an activist, organizer and writer based in Los Angeles currently working as the Voter Engagement Manager at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. She has been a long-time writer for SepiaMutiny.com, and her writing can most recently be found in the anthology Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women as well as the newly released Islamophobia, A Bitchin’ Zine. You can find her online at Mutinous Mindstate, Mishthi Music and Say What?. Follow her at twitter.com/tazzystar