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After Christchurch, Muslims ask: Are we safe in the West?

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For Amira Elghawaby, it was the carpet. Ms. Elghawaby lives in Ottawa. But when she watched video of Friday’s Christchurch mosque massacre, she was struck by the green prayer carpet on which the victims lay. It was just like the carpets at so many of the mosques where she has prayed.

The New Zealand attack, which left 50 worshipers dead, has shaken Muslim communities across the globe. It has also steeled them against the possibility of more such atrocities. As anti-Muslim sentiment rises, a similar assault could happen anywhere, worries Raja Iqbal, CEO of an artificial intelligence start-up, leaving his mosque in Redmond, Washington, last Friday. “There’s a growing nationalism around the world, a growing xenophobia,” he says.

And it is that mood, felt globally, that set the scene for the savagery in Christchurch, some observers say. Hostile rhetoric is becoming more commonplace, and so too are hate crimes against Muslims. Especially worrying, says Fiyaz Mughal, a monitor of anti-Muslim activity in Britain, “most incidents used to be online; now they are predominantly street events. Things are flipping into the real world quite substantively.”

Paris; Toronto; and Redmond, Wash.

For Amira Elghawaby, it was the carpet.

Ms. Elghawaby lives in Ottawa. But when she watched video of Friday’s Christchurch mosque massacre, she was struck by the green prayer carpet on which the victims lay, which was just like the carpets at so many of the mosques where she has prayed.

“It just felt so close,” she says.

The New Zealand attack, which left 50 worshipers dead, has shaken Muslim communities across the globe. It has also steeled them against the possibility of more such atrocities.

As anti-Muslim sentiment rises, a similar assault could happen anywhere, worries Raja Iqbal, CEO of an artificial intelligence start-up, leaving his mosque in Redmond, Washington, last Friday. “I don’t think it’s purely Islamophobia,” he says. “There’s a growing nationalism around the world, a growing xenophobia.”

And it is that mood, felt in the United States and Canada as well as in Europe and further afield, that set the scene for the savagery of last Friday’s events in Christchurch, some observers say. Hostile rhetoric – voiced and fed by politicians, the media, and social networks – is becoming more commonplace, and so too are hate crimes against Muslims.

“The ground for violent actions is laid by violent discourse,” says Rachid Benzine, a noted French-Moroccan scholar of Islam. “Words can kill.”

Especially worrying, says Fiyaz Mughal, an award-winning monitor of anti-Muslim activity in Britain, “most incidents used to be online; now they are predominantly street events. Things are flipping into the real world quite substantively.”

‘Always in the back of my mind’

The immediate priority at the Redmond mosque on Friday was physical security. Police stepped up their presence, and “we are considering any and all security measures,” says Amelia Neighbors, a member of the mosque’s board.

Worshipers also appeared to appreciate signs of support from a small group of well-wishers from other faiths who gathered in front of the mosque. But they are aware of a hardening mood in the United States.

Hate crimes have been rising year after year, according to FBI figures, and attacks on Muslims and their places of prayer hit an all-time high in 2016 before falling back slightly in 2017, the last year for which statistics are available.

North of the border, Canada has stood out for its embrace of multiculturalism and the welcome it has offered to Syrian refugees, yet a similar trend has emerged. Hate crimes jumped by 47 percent in 2017 from the year before, according to government figures, and crimes targeting Muslims rose by 151 percent. Incidents against Muslims in Quebec peaked in March 2017, the month after a gunman killed six worshipers at the Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec City.

Ms. Elghawaby, whose Egyptian parents brought her to Canada when she was a baby, says she is not frightened (though someone once drove a pickup truck straight at her before swerving away as passengers yelled at her to take her headscarf off). “But it’s always in the back of my mind.”

At Toronto’s Jami mosque, the oldest in the city, administrator Amjed Syed says he will not be cowed by the Christchurch attack. “We are not paranoid,” he says. “Our doors are open all the time.”

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor

Hamdy Shafiq, imam of the Jami Mosque in Toronto, says that his congregation will not be intimidated by the mosque attacks in New Zealand.

Continental attitudes

In the heavily Muslim suburb of Pantin, north of Paris, mosque president M’hammed Henniche is more circumspect. Though he turned down a government offer of an armed police guard, he is keeping his doors locked between prayers for safety’s sake.

Violent attacks on mosques are rare in France, but the atmosphere often feels hostile to Muslims, Mr. Henniche says. “We are more visible nowadays, less ashamed of our religion than our parents were, and that makes a lot of ordinary French people afraid that their country is being taken over,” he explains.

“In general society there is a fear of Islam,” adds Mr. Benzine. “Sometimes it looks like mass hysteria,” he says, pointing to the media and political firestorm that erupted recently when a sportswear chain introduced a moisture-wicking Islamic headscarf for joggers. The retailer was forced to withdraw the item in the face of charges it was contributing to the isolation of Muslim women.

Prevalent attitudes in France toward Muslims are also manifest in hiring practices. A study last year found that a religious Muslim man had four times fewer chances of being called to a job interview than a religious Christian with exactly the same CV.

Such discrimination “frustrates Muslims and makes them turn inward toward their own community,” says Mr. Henniche. “And that spurs more French racism against them.”

Politicians can make things worse. Then-Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said last year he found it “shocking” that the head of a student union at the Sorbonne University – a Muslim convert – should wear a headscarf. He said it was “a sign … she is different from French society.”

Nor do Muslims feel very welcome in courtrooms in Bavaria, in southern Germany. The state’s constitutional court last week upheld a ban on judges and prosecutors wearing headscarves on the grounds that they should be neutral in matters of religion. A Christian cross, meanwhile, hangs in every Bavarian courtroom.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a senior member of the ruling Christian Social Union party, sparked controversy last year when he declared that “Islam is not part of Germany.”

“When politicians say all day long that Muslims are different, that they don’t belong, is it surprising when you see an increase in Islamophobic violence?” wonders Nadim Houry, head of the terrorism program at Human Rights Watch. “It definitely creates an enabling environment.”

The first nine months of 2017 saw 97 attacks on mosques in Germany, a 25 percent jump from the same period a year earlier, according to the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, which runs most of the mosques in the country.

‘The perfect storm’

In Britain, the number of anti-Muslim incidents continues to rise, hitting new records in 2017 according to TellMAMA, an organization that measures anti-Muslim attacks. There has been a recent surge in the number of reported incidents and in their level of aggression, says Mr. Mughal, TellMAMA’s founder.

Mr. Mughal blames social media companies, especially Twitter, for being slow to take down posts by right-wing extremists and to block the accounts on which they appear. He also points a finger at inflammatory newspaper headlines.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor

Worshipers leave Friday prayers at a large mosque in Redmond, Washington, as a police officer looks on. Additional officers secured the mosque on March 15.

A 2012 study of the U.K. press over three months by scholars at Leeds University found that 70 percent of stories about Muslims were hostile and that 80 percent of them included no Muslim sources. “Press coverage representing Muslims is largely hostile and … Muslim voices remain marginal,” the researchers found.

Other factors behind the rise in violent Islamophobia, Mr. Mughal suggests, include Islamist terror attacks, the economic downturn and the financial strains it has imposed, routine discrimination against Muslims, and the far right’s effective use of the internet.

“A combination of all these elements has created the perfect storm,” Mr. Mughal says. “It creates an environment where hate is normalized, an environment of dehumanization without any sense of empathy or care” in which outrages such as the Christchurch massacre become possible.

“Sadly, I think it is only a matter of time before there is another one like that,” Mr. Mughal says.

The view from the Middle East

What impact is all this having on the overwhelmingly Muslim Middle East, where millions of families have relatives living in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand?

Western foreign policies and the wars they have fostered mean that the United States and Europe are widely unpopular in the Middle East. But the Christchurch massacre has brought to the surface uglier allegations.

“The U.S. bans Muslims. Muslims are killed in the mosque as easily as they are killed in wars here,” says Abu Mohammed, a young Jordanian engineer. “They don’t just want our economic resources or our lands; they truly hate Islam and Muslims.”

The attack has also stirred fears about living in the West. “It is not safe being an Arab or a Muslim in the West,” said Awra Ali, a Jordanian nurse whose sister lives in Michigan. “No matter if they talk about human rights or inclusivity, you will always be different; you will always be the other; you will always be a target.”

Some would-be emigrants even say they are rethinking their plans to escape the region’s deadening unemployment rates. “I have been dreaming of the West, thinking of it as heaven on Earth, the answer to all my problems,” says Mohammed Tamimi, an Amman taxi driver who has been applying for scholarships in Australia and Canada.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press/AP

People gather for a vigil for the victims of the New Zealand terror attack on March 15 in Toronto.

“But it looks like the Arab world is much better for me. At least here I can pray without fear.”

But very few people blame any particular religion for the inflammatory rhetoric and Islamophobic attacks in Western countries that they hear about.

“We can’t let one isolated incident by one sick person color our perception of an entire people, country, or religion,” insisted Ahmed Awreikat, a cousin of one of the men who died in Christchurch, at the victim’s funeral. “In the West, they have democratic institutions, transparency, and inalienable rights,” he pointed out. “That should be enough to protect Arabs and Muslims.”

Across the world in Ottawa, Amira Elghawaby is also putting her trust in such “Western values” and hoping that the authorities will uphold them.

“I know that Canadians are by and large extremely welcoming and supportive, and … I do feel that I belong here,” she says. “But at the same time I’m really looking to all levels of government, everyone, to really do more to try to root out this type of hatred.”

Taylor Luck in Amman, Jordan, and Clifford Coonan in Berlin contributed reporting to this article.



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