New Zealand mosque killings raise fears among US Muslims

New Zealand mosque killings raise fears among US Muslims
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Islamic communities across the United States were on heightened alert Friday on the heels of horrific mass shootings at a pair of New Zealand mosques said to be orchestrated by a white supremacist targeting Muslims.

Law enforcement officials in a host of major cities — including New York, Houston and Washington, D.C. — bolstered security at regional mosques and other Islamic centers; congressional lawmakers pronounced their solidarity with America's Muslims; and Islamic leaders across the country urged vigilance, but also defiance, as the apparent hate crime sent shockwaves around the globe.

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“Millions of people who are Muslim will be in mosques over the next couple of hours, concerned and fearful about their lives, that someone might come and hurt them,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group, said Friday at a press conference in Washington. 

“They have very legitimate fears, and they are being told to be afraid by white supremacists and political leaders who believe in white supremacy,” he continued. “And we tell our community: do not be afraid, and do not abandon your mosques. Not today; not ever.”

That message was amplified by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who expressed their horror with appeals for tenacity.

“This is concerning that a community that is an integral part of New York City has to be so fearful because of bigotry and hate,” Rep. Adriano EspaillatAdriano de Jesus Espaillat CabralOvernight Defense: House approves 3 billion defense bill | Liberal sweeteners draw progressive votes | Bill includes measure blocking Trump from military action on Iran House approves defense bill after adding liberal sweeteners Lawmakers congratulate US women's soccer team on winning opening World Cup match MORE (D-N.Y.), who represents the Bronx, said Friday by phone from his district.

“There's a lot of copycats out there, and there are many people who are just racist and hateful that will try to intimidate,” he continued. “And so we must be vigilant — that's my message. Continue to live your life the way we all live our lives in New York: unafraid.”

Not everyone is heeding the advice.
 
Imam Muhammad Musri, the president of American Islam and represents 10 mosques in central Florida, said he met Friday morning with law enforcement officers, who gave assurances there was no known threat to his congregations. Even so, Musri estimated the drop-off in attendance at Friday's prayer services was 15 or 20 percent.
 
"There's a lot of anxiety and fear, and quite a few people expressed that they don't want to go to the mosque today, just in case there are copycats," he said. "And they felt, better to be safe than sorry."
 
Musri said law enforcement officials are planning walk throughs of the mosques, to lend advice on bolstering existing protections, including more cameras and security personnel — measures that were strengthened following the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. 
 
"Sometimes you get to a point where you wonder what else can we do," he said. "This is not a prison, this is a public place for worship. And we try to keep it open welcoming anyone and everyone." 
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Awad said he has “full confidence” in local and federal law enforcement agencies to protect Islamic communities amid heightened concerns of another attack — an issue that's been scrutinized in recent years following similar shootings targeting minority worshipers in the United States. The list of victims includes Sikhs at a Wisconsin temple; African-Americans at a historic church in South Carolina; and Jews at a Synagogue in Pittsburgh. And local officials on Friday were leaving nothing to chance. 

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered New York police to be “out in force” at mosques and other Muslim gathering spots Friday morning. In Houston, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez stepped up patrols around Muslim centers of worship “out of an abundance of caution.” In Washington, D.C., Police Chief Peter Newsham vowed “special attention at all of our religious institutions.” And the list goes on.

“There's no credible threat here in the United States,” Newsham told a local NBC television station. “[But] one of the things we have to do is make our Muslim community in particular feel comfortable.” 

Friday's shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, left at least 49 people dead, while another 48, including young children, were being treated for injuries of varying degrees at Christchurch Hospital, according to the head of the region’s health board. 

In response, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the country's security threat level to high, and officials are warning worshippers to avoid mosques. Ardern characterized the tragedy as “one of New Zealand's darkest days.”

New Zealand law enforcement is holding four people — three men and one woman — in connection to the massacre, including an Australian man who's been charged with murder. That suspect appears to have posted a manifesto online just before the shooting in which he attacked non-white immigrants as “invaders” and expressed hopes of starting a global race war.

He also invoked President TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE as an inspiration, calling the president “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” He was more critical of Trump's leadership skills.

Joining other world leaders, Trump roundly condemned the attacks, offering his “warmest sympathy ... after the horrible massacre” and vowing “any assistance the U.S.A. can give.”

Yet many Muslim and human rights activists say the president didn't go far enough. Groups that monitor hate crimes say there's been a notable increase in such attacks since Trump took the White House. And they attribute the jump, at least in part, to the president's tough talk against undocumented immigrants and episodes like the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, when Trump said there were “fine people” on both sides of the debate.

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), said such comments have only cultured an environment that leads to violent attacks like that in New Zealand, and he encouraged policymakers to begin treating white supremacy as a global terrorist threat, akin to that of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“This hatred is even being amplified by our own president, who speaks of an ‘invasion of our country,’ ” Cohen said. 

And Awad, of CAIR, went a step further, saying Trump is “responsible” for “the growing anti-Muslim sentiment” around the globe. He urged the president to denounce the white supremacist movement in no uncertain terms.

“Mr. Trump, your words matter, your policies matter,” Awad said. “You need to condemn this clearly today, and you do not need to be vague.”

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said earlier Friday that the suspect was “wrong” to call Trump a symbol of “white identity” and called the shooter “evil.”

“He’s wrong. The shooter is an evil, hateful person. He’s wrong about that,” Conway told reporters at the White House.

According to CAIR, there were roughly 2,600 reported anti-Muslim incidents across the United States in 2017, up 17 percent from the year before. And the SPLC identified a record-high 1,020 hate groups operating nationwide in 2018, up from 917 two years earlier. 

On Capitol Hill, Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle rushed out statements reviling the New Zealand shooting — some with warnings that it may inspire similar attacks at home.

“I know that my fellow Muslims around the world are fearful of this, so I’m thankful that law enforcement and the intelligence community are on high alert,” Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), one of three Muslim lawmakers currently in Congress, said in an email. “For too long, we have not felt fully comfortable practicing and living out our faith – and that’s profoundly unjust.”

Carson suggested lawmakers can play a greater role in discouraging bigoted violence, noting that Indiana is currently pushing for tougher hate crime law. 

The issue is hardly new on Capitol Hill. Just last week, House lawmakers had united to pass a sweeping resolution condemning all forms of hate — a response to recent comments from Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarScaramucci calls Trump tweets 'racist and unacceptable' House Democrat pushes for censuring Trump in closed-door meeting Black Caucus leader calls Trump's attacks on minority lawmakers 'despicable' MORE (D-Minn.) considered by many to be anti-Semitic. Lawmakers are hoping the carefully crafted legislation will set the tenor of conversations to come — in the Capitol and outside of it. The New Zealand shooting has given them another unpleasant reason to come together.

“The antidote to this latest wave of hate and terror is solidarity,” said Rep. Jennifer WextonJennifer Lynn WextonProgressives face steep odds in ousting incumbent Democrats Congress needs to continue fighting the opioid epidemic Lawmakers battle over HUD protections for homeless transgender people MORE (D), who represents a Northern Virginia district where more than 6 percent of the population is Muslim. “It’s on all of us to reject this dangerous ideology, but especially our leaders and lawmakers.”