As Ramadan Begins, American Mosques Are Preparing For The Worst

When Mohanned Qutu, the president of the Sachse Muslim Society in Sachse, Texas, was reviewing blueprints for a new mosque, he noticed the design included a wall of full-length windows.

“Given what’s been happening in the world the last couple of years,” Qutu told HuffPost, “it just made common sense” to avoid the potential for a security risk.

Qutu and the building committee agreed to raise the windows to five feet off the ground for the safety of their congregations. It was a small detail, Qutu said, but one his team couldn’t overlook, especially during Ramadan.

“We always go overboard so we can be prepared,” Qutu, 48, said.

Muslims around the world were stricken in March when a white supremacist opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, during Friday prayers, killing 51 worshippers. Later that month, a mosque in California was set on fire. A note left at the scene referenced the New Zealand massacre.

The rash of violence has many Muslims concerned as mosques prepare for their busiest time of year ― the month of Ramadan, which began Monday, when congregations gather to break fasts and attend late-night prayers. Mosque leaders across the country have sought professional help to secure their centers in preparation for the worst.

Nezar Hamze is a deputy sheriff, a field trainer and a trained rescue driver with a crisis intervention team based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In the past four years, Hamze has traveled to over 170 mosques across the U.S. to deliver safety and security trainings and assessments, hoping to help members of the Muslim community safeguard their lives as well as their mosques.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, at least 15 U.S. mosques were attacked in 2018. In February of that year, someone threw a large rock through the glass front door of a county Islamic center in Virginia. The next month, two Arizona women were arrested after they took a group of children to vandalize and steal materials at a mosque. Two months later, burglars stole money from donation boxes in a Houston mosque, then vandalized the premises with derogatory words and urinated on the carpet.

During the first few months of 2017, an average of nine mosques were targeted every month. In some of those cases, multiple incidents occurred in the same city or the same mosque.

Sheriff's Deputy Nezar Hamze teaches members of the Baitul Mukarram Mosque in Lake Worth, Florida, how to defend themselves if a shooter attacks their worship service. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Sheriff's Deputy Nezar Hamze teaches members of the Baitul Mukarram Mosque in Lake Worth, Florida, how to defend themselves if a shooter attacks their worship service. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Hamze’s in-depth training, which can cost between $500 and $2250 depending on the topic and the number of sessions, covers what to do if an active shooter attacks a mosque. It also offers guidance on bomb threats, evacuation plans and general safety practices during times of large congregation like Ramadan or Friday prayers. Hamze can review a mosque’s floor plans and meet with its security team; he also offers his services to other Muslim centers, such as private Islamic schools.

The Florida-based officer said the massacre in New Zealand distressed him but did not surprise him. He is concerned similar attacks could happen in America.

“I’m not surprised if it will happen again,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when and where. So we have to make sure the community has the knowledge, skills, tools and training to protect themselves.”

Demand for Hamze’s services surged after the New Zealand shooting, and again after last month’s synagogue shooting in California ― the suspect in the latter case has also been charged with the mosque fire in March. But Hamze, 42, has urged Muslim communities to be proactive at all times, not just in the wake of attacks like these.

The Islamic Center of Boca Raton in Florida was among the mosques that immediately called Hamze after New Zealand. The event spurred mosque members to critically review their security plans, Rami Aboumahadi, a member of the mosque’s safety and security team, told HuffPost. Especially during Ramadan, they didn’t want to take any chances.

“It just became more critical for us to take more organized steps to ensure that something like this never happens here, or if God forbid it does come to happen, to minimize [the outcome],” Aboumahadi said. “It’s tips we hopefully never have to use, but God forbid something happens, we at least have an idea what to do.”

The center spends thousands annually on security, and it hired armed guards to circle the premises for the duration of Ramadan this year. But Aboumahadi said it’s just as important to be individually equipped in addition to hiring private security. Ramadan will soon come to an end, but the safety training will last beyond that.

“[Hamze’s training] is something that the average Joe may not have the trained eye for. So to hear it from that professional perspective is absolutely valuable,” Aboumahadi said. “Alhamdullah [thank God], having him in the community is a great asset.”

One of the largest mosques in Central Texas, the North Austin Muslim Community Center, has been targeted four times in the past several months. Last week, a suspect was seen on video pouring gasoline on the sides of the building and attempting to light it on fire. Police have not yet caught the attempted arsonist.

The Islamic Center of Boca Raton, in Florida, called Nezar Hamze for safety training soon after the mass shooting in New Zealand. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
The Islamic Center of Boca Raton, in Florida, called Nezar Hamze for safety training soon after the mass shooting in New Zealand. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Austin mosque has since strengthened its security measures, and is working closely with law enforcement in an effort to apprehend the arsonist and deter other attacks. The imam told HuffPost the center has already spent thousands of dollars on security this year alone. With Ramadan in full swing, the mosque has also implemented 24-hour surveillance and hired private security.

“We want to do everything we can after putting our trust in Allah that we take the means necessary for people’s safety as well,” Islam Mossaad, the imam of the community center, told HuffPost.

The Austin center has had its share of harassment. Vandals slashed people’s tires in the parking lot last year, and at least one of the damaged vehicles was reportedly urinated on. In September, the mosque’s doors and windows were smashed during an overnight attempted robbery that cost the mosque thousands of dollars in damages. Later that month, worshippers found their tires slashed yet again in the parking lot.

In Westchester, New York, Saad Gewida has taken new measures for his mosque, where he has been an imam for over 10 years. The Hudson Valley Islamic Community Center never used to employ formal security practices, largely relying on volunteers to patrol and safeguard the premises during Ramadan prayers, also known as taraweeh prayers.

But given the ongoing attacks on U.S. mosques, and in light of the New Zealand massacre, Gewida said it was too risky not to take action. He has hired private security to guard the entrances and exits to the mosque every night. The mosque holds daily iftars, or meals for breaking one’s fast, followed by taraweeh prayers that almost 200 Muslims attend, many bringing parents, children and relatives of all ages and backgrounds.

“If someone dies, then it’s over. A person’s life has ended,” Gewida told HuffPost. “This way, we have protected our people and don’t put them in danger, and our community members were relieved to hear that we have chosen to do so.”

Gewida is grateful that their mosque has not faced any major hate crimes like the mosque in Austin, but he urged other Muslim leaders to crack down and secure their houses of worship.

“[Mosque board members and imams] are the ones responsible in the eyes of God. If, God forbid, anything happens, God will hold those people accountable,” Gewida said. “We need to act proactively and provide a space where people can be spiritually and physically safe.”

In Sachse, Texas, Qutu hired full-time security for Ramadan ― not only for the evening prayers but also during the fajr prayers, which take place at dawn.

He’s already thinking ahead to the next Ramadan. The plan is to install a security lock that requires visitors to be buzzed in.

“There are a lot of good people around us,” Qutu said. “But we just go extra on the security measures. Just to make sure.”

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.