ORLANDO – As a heavy night fell on Orlando the day after the shooting, the citizens were asked time and time again to postpone all vigils and commemoration, as there were not enough police to secure such events. But in spite of the warning, at the Orlando Baitul-Aafiyat Mosque, just a short drive from the Pulse club, members of the congregation invited the grieving citizens of Orlando to an interfaith service offering prayers for the recovery of the injured, to meet with members of the Muslim community in town, and to join them for a night meal that follows the daily fasting in the month of Ramadan.
“There was a tragedy that occurred just 20 minutes from here, and our hearts, prayers and thoughts go to the victims and their families and friends,” says Salaam Bhatti, the national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya community in the United States, to which the mosque belongs. “We started the service today with a recitation of the Holy Koran, 5:32, the killing of an innocent life is like the killing of all mankind, the saving of an innocent life is the saving of all mankind. We are standing with the community in Orlando, doing whatever we can, and offering our support. We are more than happy to speak with people if they have questions about Islam, we know that this is a very sensitive time, and we urge everyone to remain calm.”
Bhatti adds that members of the mosque extend their support to the LGBT community in Orlando – “through our prayers, and through donating our blood, we are hoping this will make a difference, in lives being saved after lives have been lost.”
While children are playing in the mosque, and visitors are eating the meal to end the daily fast, Bhatti explains about a new initiative to fight the radicalization of young Muslims in the United States.
“We have our youth education classes, where we teach young people how to treat their parents, about treating women with equality, and we have recently started the 'True Islam anti-extremist campaign,' like an Islam 101, that shows what Islam really is, to raise the security here in America.
“The extremists have taken these points and bastardized them,” he says, “but when they say jihad is violent, we say no, it’s a peaceful struggle from within; when they say women should be subjugated, we say no, women should be empowered; when they say be loyal to ISIS, we say no, be loyal to your country of residence. And every point is traced directly to the teachings of Mohammed.
“Five thousand people,” Bhatti continues, “Muslims and non Muslims, have subscribed to the campaign, and it’s catching fire. What happened is a direct contradiction to everything Islam stands for. There is nothing in the Koran or the practices of Mohammed that says go out and kill gay people for being gay.”
Holding off on meeting with LGBT community
Citizens of Orlando are welcome to visit the mosque, but due to the sensitivity of this time, the leaders of the congregation are holding off for now about organizing a meeting with the LGBT community. Dr. Wajeeh Bajwa, president of the Orlando Ahmadiyya Muslim community, says such an initiative will have to wait. “We will try to organize a dialog with members of the LGBT community, but now we want to give families time to grieve. We are focusing on praying and grieving right now.”
Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has come to the Pulse to offer condolences to the victims and their families, and has called the killer, Omar Mateen, a “deranged individual.”
Only hours after the shooting, Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, and in the following days added that mosques in the country should be investigated. Shibly told Haaretz that he fears the shooting might lead to attacks on America’s Muslim community.
“We do fear that it may trigger acts of violence against the Muslim community,” says Shibly. “Last year, after the San Bernardino attack, we documented an increase of over 500 percent in hate crimes against Muslims in Florida. We need to stand united more than ever, and not allow those who promote hate and violence to undermine the principals of justice and unity that make America one of the best places in the world to be a Christian, Jew, Muslim or atheist.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by many members of the LGBT community at the site of the shooting, and by those who rushed in to help. One of many volunteers, Heather Fox, who came in her ice cream truck to offer free cold drinks to other volunteers, said, “We need to stay united, we are all human beings.”
At the mosque, Bajwa agrees that some in the community fear a backlash, and in the tense hours after the shooting many were unsure about hosting the event. “Some really didn’t want the event to be held, they feared that there will be a backlash,” he said. Meanwhile, many members of the mosque were finding it hard to absorb the emotional shocks of the incident.
Bushra Salam Bajwa, president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim women’s association (and wife of Dr. Wajeeh Bajwa), recounts the tense hours she and others went through as details of the shooting came to light. “At an event like that, all of us are praying that this is not a ‘Muslim event,’ and then your heart just sinks to your feet, you just don’t want to believe that it’s another person who calls himself a Muslim,” she says. “We came here to pray together. We are not these people [Islamic militants], but our hearts still bleed.”
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