The Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland.

Credit: Daderot / Wikimedia Commons

In Massachusetts, Muslim Families Fear Charlie Hebdo Backlash

February 9, 2015

It’s been nearly five weeks since gunmen stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and murdered a dozen people. Since then the terrorist group known as the Islamic State has continued to execute foreigners. Attacks on mosques abroad are increasing in frequency and families at Massachusetts’ second largest mosque say they’re also nervous about backlash.

About four years ago The Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland, along the busy Boston Post Road — was the subject of a protest by members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church.

"Somebody at the local high school, Wayland High School, had found out about this group coming and demonstrating over here,” said former Mosque president Malik Khan.

Wayland High School students protest the Westboro Baptist Church across the street from the Islamic Center of Boston.
Caption
Photo Credit: Islamic Center of Boston.

Khan says what happened that cold November morning is still an often-told story. The local high school students arrived to stand on the mosque’s side of the street. No one asked them to come. They did it own their own.

"They yelled and screamed more than the other guys," Khan said. "And they did it for us. None of them was a Muslim."

The mosque’s members were surprised and touched by the community support, so much so they endowed an annual scholarship for a Wayland public high school student. In the center’s small office, Mario Moreira explains that mosque members have made a point of befriending local civic leaders and members of other religious groups.

"They become our first line of defense, much like the Wayland High Schoolers came to our defense," he said. "That’s, to me, the best way.”

The mosque’s leaders hope those bonds protect them now, as terrorists who say they’re also Muslim are beheading journalists abroad. But they also want to teach their impressionable teenage children to be proud Muslim Americans who stand up for themselves — not apologize for the actions of people they don’t know.

So, Moreira feels frustrated when people ask what they’re doing to discourage radicalism among young people at the mosque.

“I consider that a silly question because you’re already making me sound guilty," he said. "We’re certainly not going to say we’re going to do some steps to prevent radicalism, because we don’t have that problem.”

Outside Moreira's office groups of parents — most successful suburban, immigrant or first-generation professionals — socialize while their children finish Sunday-school classes about religion and history. They say incidents have been scaring them recently, like what happened after Ghazala Alam’s 12-year-old son mentioned his uncle to his friends. His uncle is a prize-winning skeet shooter in Texas.

"I received a call from the principal of the school asking if I had sent my son to the Middle East to be trained using guns,” Alam said. "The way things went on the grapevine, he was perceived as being trained as a terrorist in a Middle-East camp."

Allam took her son out of the school. Imrana Kazam says if that had happened to her when she was a child, her immigrant parents would’ve waited for things to blow over. But that’s not what she wants her kids to do.

“I give them scenarios," she said. "What if somebody says this to you, are you just going to take it? You don’t have to be aggressive, but you should have a response back."

Sunday school classes wrap up around mid-afternoon with final prayers.

Temour Raza, 17, says he's only faced one recent incident of obvious prejudice--  when he, his mother, and younger brother were going through airport security while on a holiday trip.

"Both of them got to go through, but I got the extra pat-down," he said. "Of course, I’m harmless. But that was one of the times that I feel like, there is a problem there. and maybe I experience it less than other people, but it exists."

He can’t ignore that’s part of his life as an American, Raza says. His friend, 16-year-old Saadi Ali, says she could pass for non-Muslim, in part because she doesn’t cover her head.

"I have been in rooms where people have said negative things about Muslims and I’ve said, ‘Represent, over here,’” she said.

People get upset, Ali says. But she’s gotten used to that reaction.

"They don’t make me feel ashamed," she said. "They actually make me feel like a fighter.”

Ali says she’s okay with that because while her elders at the mosque rely on interfaith friendships to protect them, Ali says she and her friends want to protect themselves.


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