Guarding Mosques in America After Paris and San Bernardino
January 4, 2016
The main entrance to the mosque is off limits.
Yellow caution tape drapes large glass doors leading into the building that houses the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) in Sterling, Virginia, a suburb of DC. People coming to visit are asked to enter through a small side door, where a tall man with hard eyes stands watchfully. Brightly colored children’s paintings scatter the walls on the ground floor. “Allah wants you to be clean, so brush your teeth!” one of them admonishes.
“Anyone can wander in through here,” says ADAMS board member Robert Marro. A former officer in the US Foreign Service stationed in Malaysia, Marro succumbed to a longtime fascination with Islam decades ago and converted before marrying a local woman. He’s serving as ADAMS’s informal press liaison—the mosque has recently experienced a spate of media interest as a result of its cooperation with authorities to combat extremism. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed—Marro is careful to emphasize the outpouring of interfaith support and solidarity from local Christian and Jewish groups in recent months.
Of course, not all of the news coverage has been complimentary.
“Because of the situation after Paris and San Bernardino, we have increased security a little bit,” Marro explains. “We have more security officers and we channel everybody in through here during the week, so that we can have better control. During Friday prayers, the tape comes down and the cones come off so people can enter the building.”
After the San Bernardino tragedy in December, a team of guards employed by Elite Investigation and Protection Agency—the company contracted by ADAMS to oversee security at the mosque— refused to continue working there. Why they left their posts remains unclear. Some say the guards couldn’t handle the possibility of being targeted in the wave of Islamophobia racking the United States since the terror attacks; others seem to think they simply grew tired of mosque officials’ insistence on enhanced security.
In any case, it’s clear that the new guards hired to protect ADAMS are no amateurs. There’s a certain look people get when they’ve fought professionally—something in their expressions, maybe, or the way they can be still without relaxing a muscle—and these men all have it. One might expect their presence to be comforting to the congregation. But for worshippers at ADAMS and in mosques across the country, these upgraded security measures reflect increasingly frequent attacks against Muslims in the United States. As Islamophobic political rhetoric mounts and hate crimes and incidents of mosque vandalism pile up, the personnel paid to keep worshippers safe symbolize the nagging discomfort of being a Muslim in America today.
Strolling down halls and poised outside doorways, mosque security guards are vigilant human reminders of what it’s like to practice your faith in a country where you’re increasingly hated because of what you believe.
A young girl listens to a speech by Rizwan Jaka, chair of the board of ADAMS, in Sterling, Virginia. All photos by the author
Rabia is a pretty, round-faced 17-year-old wearing a hijab and a cheerful smile. She’s been going to ADAMS since she was a small child, both to worship and partake in the many classes, games, and activities held there for the community.
“I think it’s the little things,” Rabia says. “Just this Sunday, we usually go to the creek outside the mosque. We’ve been going there since like fourth grade. The weather was nice so we went back there, and we were just having fun and stuff, and then one of the security guards called my dad and they were like, ‘Oh, you guys can’t be out here. It’s not safe.’
“You can see it going down,” she adds. “It’s just affecting everything so much. It’s little things, but they’re adding up. It’s a little more and more and more, and you’re just so annoyed with the situation.”
Rabia says she hasn’t ever been the target of hate speech or Islamophobia herself, but almost everyone at the mosque knows someone who has been.
“I feel like at my age, girls especially have such a hard time fitting in and finding their place,” Rabia says, her smile faltering. “They want to find out who they are and this is just like hurting them more. You feel hated and I think that’s the worst feeling to have—especially as a Muslim girl growing up. You’re already having problems and insecurities:‘I’m not as pretty wearing hijab,’ things like that. You hate standing out just to begin with, and then to just know that people don’t want you here, I think that it just makes it so much worse. I don’t even know if it’s stares or somebody saying something, but just that subconscious feeling that people don’t like you—that hurts so much.”
The guards might make Rabia and her friends uncomfortable, but mosque officials insist they’re necessary. In an empty conference room he’s commandeered, Rizwan Jaka, chair of the board of ADAMS, explains how the board decided to upgrade security as Islamophobic attacks grew more frequent in recent years. According to FBI statistics from November, hate crimes targeting Muslims have increased each year since 2012, following some fluctuation after the enormous spike that occurred in reaction to September 11.
“After the attack against the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sikh