BY Roda Osman
In the wake of the September 17 explosion in Chelsea Udin Raheem had three thoughts – concern for the people of Chelsea, relief that no one was severely hurt, and worry about the “blame or burden” the Muslim community would endure.
Raheem 48, is an activist and a volunteer organizer at the Masjid Ar-Rahman mosque in Chelsea, just a few blocks away from where the explosion occurred, one of 200 mosques in New York City. Violent incidents against members of the Muslim community had increased in the wake of terrorist incidents in France and San Bernardino. In anticipation of possible trouble, he and other members of the mosque created a safety guide for members and their visitors.
Fatimeh Phipps, a middle-aged member of the mosque, is the coordinator for the female side of the mosque. The women go through a back door to come here and listen to the imam via loudspeaker. “It is imperative they feel safe while traveling in and out of their place of worship,” says Phipps. First they sit in a circle and listened to advice about safety, practical and legal resources. Afterwards, they received flyers about self-defense classes hosted by WISE, the women’s initiative for self-empowerment, an organization for young Muslim women. The information was gathered and added to the Friday ceremony on September 25th and will be announced every Friday afterwards.
Men get the same advice about safety, except for the information about self-defense classes, which are meant only for women.
The worshippers have mixed views on the safety guide.
Sabrina Ali, the 55-year-old mother of five and housewife, is proud of the progressive response displayed by the leadership in the Mosque. “When I was young, women were not encouraged to fight back. It is dangerous out here for Muslims and I am glad that young women will have the tools to get home safely,” says Ali.
Another worshipper, Risnalia Dharmawati, is a 21 year-old student and cashier. She feels that the safety information causes unnecessary worry to the members. “I didn’t know that I should be in fear. I haven’t felt any hate or danger from anyone. There is no need to scare the guest; we trust in Allah,” says Dharmawati.
The surrounding community is divided as well, about the very presence of the mosque.
Genevieve Jacobson, 29, has been a barber in the neighborhood for six years and is happy to see worshippers gather every week. “The neighborhood has changed so much. It is nice to have that Mosque as a constant. Every Friday I can count on hundreds of people praying. That is a good thing,” she says. Although most of her clients are young young white men, rather than members of the mosque, she maintains a friendly relationship with many of them. “We say hello and goodbye. I know people fear Muslim people but if you get to know a few that fear will quickly subside. It scares me that people might harm them because of that fear,” says Jacobson.
She believes that the neighborhood supports the mosque, and that the neighborhood is safe.
Mike Brown, a 42 year-old financial broker and local resident for the past two years, feels differently. “There are always so many cabs and people on Fridays. It causes a ruckus. I don’t know what they are telling those people. I would feel more comfortable if police would secure the area to make sure everyone is safe,” he says. “I believe in freedom to express any religion, but that is a lot of people and we don’t know who they are.”
Brown believes that the neighborhood along with the mosque would benefit from having a police presence during Friday prayers.
Raheem feels compelled to remind people that Islam means peace. “The mosque is promoting self-care, not violence by any means. It is evident due to the number of violent acts against Muslims that self-care is necessary,” says Raheem. He doesn’t feel that Muslims will feel safe for years to come, especially given the rhetoric in the 2016 election. “Unfortunately, we are misunderstood. People spread nonsense about Muslims on the television and then Muslim Americans get hurt. Many members of the mosque came to America for peace,” he says.