LOS ANGELES -- At the Islamic Center of Southern California, a historic mosque near downtown LA that attracts more than 1,000 Muslims each week for prayers, worshippers can usually walk in with ease. But in the days after the Paris attacks, security -- existent but usually slim at the mosque known for its strong and peaceful relations with the local community -- has been amped up. All attendees at any time of day have been subject to bag checks. Keep an eye out, mosque administrators have told the imam.
While much of the world is on alert for attacks from the Islamic State, Muslims in Southern California -- and those across the U.S. -- are keeping watch for retaliation against their communities in reaction to last week's massacre of 129 people in Paris by Islamic State extremists.
Since Friday, mosques and Muslims in at least eight states have reported vandalism at their houses of worship and threats against individuals. The incidents include shots fired at a mosque in Meriden, Connecticut, and an Eiffel Tower spray-painted outside an Islamic center in Omaha, Nebraska. In Charlotte, North Carolina, an Uber driver said a rider hit him while he was driving over the weekend after assuming he was Muslim.
"We know there could be somebody out there for whom this just lights the fuse, and they are ready to come for us." Omar Ricci, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California.
"Who knows when somebody will attack," said Omar Ricci, a reserve officer for the Los Angeles Police Department and chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, which held a prayer vigil after Friday's attacks. "We know there could be somebody out there for whom this just lights the fuse, and they are ready to come for us."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group whose dozens of local offices track reports of hate crimes, said it has seen a spike in calls in recent days about anti-Muslim incidents.
No precise numbers are available for how many anti-Muslim acts in the U.S. have been reported to police since the Paris attacks, and many suspects in the crimes on mosques have not been caught. But Muslim organizations have raised the alarm in hopes that attention from law enforcement will help curb further violence. (An FBI report released this week found that the total number of hate crimes in the U.S. declined last year, and that most groups showed a decline in hate crimes against them except Muslims, who saw a 14 percent increase.)
"I tried to get a count on just the mosques today but never was able to due to the incoming wave of phone calls," said Corey Saylor, director of CAIR's Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia.
The Islamic Center of Southern California, Ricci said, had been lucky to not be vandalized or threatened, though a vulgar email was sent to its administration that blamed Islam for terrorism and asked the mosque to "clean up," he said. Still, he said, the mosque was preparing for the worst.
On Wednesday, two dozen organizations, including CAIR and other Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and Arab groups, released a letter expressing "deep concern about recent rhetoric that exploits the tragic attacks in Paris to misrepresent Islam, call for more profiling of Muslims, and demonize Muslim refugees."
"The bigotry and hate we’ve witnessed in the last few days has sadly been reminiscent of the response to January’s terrorist attacks at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Media figures and public officials have taken to social media and the airwaves to claim Islam is inherently violent and conflate all of Islam with ISIS, disregarding hundreds of millions of Muslims who fight for the cause of freedom and democracy every day," said the letter. It also called out the many governors who have said this week that they oppose letting Syrian refugees be resettled in their states, and blamed the politicians for contributing to anti-Muslim crimes.
As a Muslim woman who wears hijab, I made a conscious decision to remain at home the day after the Paris attacks, so I could, as I told my friends, 'stay out of harm’s way.' Maha Hilal, executive director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms
The backlash and fear hasn't only been felt among mosques. For Maha Hilal of Arlington, Virginia, it meant not leaving her home on Saturday.
"As a Muslim woman who wears hijab, I made a conscious decision to remain at home the day after the Paris attacks, so I could, as I told my friends, 'stay out of harm’s way,'" said Hilal, who is the executive director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. "I haven't really consciously done this before. But for some reason, it felt like people were 'getting sick' of those Muslim terrorists this time and that this time it would hit harder."
Still, amid the fear and attacks against Muslims, there have been signs of love and unity.
At the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, an imam, rabbi and pastor came together on Sunday for an interfaith service to "lift up the ashes of our loss" and call for peace, one of many similar observances that have taken place across the globe.
In Connecticut, where the Baitul Aman Mosque in Meriden was hit with bullets on Monday, the local community responded with a letter and gift of support.
And after Laura Swanson's 7-year-old son Jack learned that a mosque in Pflugerville, Texas, had been desecrated with feces and and torn Quran pages, he gave his piggy bank savings of $20 to the congregation.
Faisal Naeem, a board member at the Pflugerville mosque, said the gesture moved him.
"It's 20 bucks, but coming from Jack collecting his pennies it's worth 20 million bucks to me and to our community," Naeem said to news station KXAN. "This gives me hope because this means it's not one versus the other."