Seattle embraces Idriss Mosque in post-9/11 healing
Ten years ago, the world changed forever in four fiery explosions. In our little corner of the country, life changed, too.
THERE IS the big story: Four plane crashes, thousands dead. A war, 10 years and counting.
Then there is the small story. This is a story of Idriss Mosque and how a community came to embrace those it once shunned.
When a few dozen local Muslims set out to build a house of worship on Northgate Way in the late 1970s, their North Seattle neighbors tried to stop them.
"Because they didn't know what Islam was about," Adnan Bakkar, a trustee of the mosque, explained gently. True enough. But build the mosque they did, and for 20 years it operated quietly, insularly. There was little desire to reach out to the community. To what benefit, worshippers wondered?
Then came 9/11.
In place of ignorance grew a hatred so fierce, a fear so palpable, that people were taunted, spit on, even beaten just for being Muslim.
Yet simultaneously, in Seattle, there was another groundswell — one of understanding. Of support. A determination that despite our differences, we are one.
Which brings us back to Idriss. On Sept. 13th, a gray-haired man, feeling helpless at the horror 3,000 miles away, in the beloved city he once called home, staggered around the mosque parking lot with a gas can. Two worshippers approached. "Sir, what are you doing?" one asked.
The air smelled of fuel. The man smelled of liquor. In his pocket, he carried a cigarette lighter, though he never sparked a fire. In his hand, he carried a gun. Four times he pulled the trigger. Three times, the gun did not fire. The last round hit only pavement.
The case made headlines around the country.
The next day, bouquets began appearing on the mosque steps. Over the next few weeks, hundreds of cards and letters poured in — some handmade and ornate, some on crumbled scraps; some in the trembling cursive of the very old, some in the blocky scrawl of the young. Well-wishers left candles and food and donations. They held hands and sang, "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."
And they stayed. For two months, an army of volunteers — Christians, Jews, atheists, it didn't matter — stood guard round-the-clock. Tents were set up; shifts were scheduled. They came up with a name: Watchful Eyes. Hundreds gave their precious time to strangers from a culture they did not know.
It will not happen again, they vowed — not here.
Ten years ago, the world changed forever in four fiery explosions. In our little corner of the country, life changed, too. Fuel that didn't ignite, a gun that didn't harm. And hundreds of individual gestures of welcome. Small things. Real impact.
"I cannot explain how thankful and appreciative we were," says Ismail Ahmad, who was director of education at the mosque.
"I felt that the community was awakened."
Today, we circle back to some of those who sent their blessings, who stood guard, who embraced the unknown. Here, they share some of their thoughts from then, and now.
Robin Arnold, teacher, former Northgate resident
"We support you in our community. Keep your strength and faith."
I was born and raised in New York. My grandmother lives on Long Island. We would sit at the dinner table and look across the water at the twin towers.
I had been driving to work and started hearing it on the radio. I could barely turn around and go back home. My boyfriend, who's now my husband, said, "It's not that bad, the tower's still standing." I was like, there are two towers! How can you not know it's two! And what do you mean it's not so bad?
It took hours and hours to get in contact with my family to see if they were OK. There was nobody else that I know personally out here that was so shaken by it. How could the whole landscape and whole life out there change so drastically?
I imagined the people at the mosque thinking the same thing: We were just going about our business and now things have drastically changed.
We brought flowers and a card. This gentleman came to the door and greeted us, showed us around. Prayer was going on. My husband is Native American. He said it reminded him of when they're drumming. It gives you confidence but peace at the same time.
We probably spent a couple hours there. It was more like fellowship. We both left feeling uplifted.
I had an impression it was a very closed-off community before. All these years later, my impression would be it would be OK if I ever wanted to go back there. I did see it as a more open, welcoming place.
Alice Woldt, Watchful Eyes organizer, then-executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle
The Church Council called a meeting on the afternoon of 9/11. I asked Hisham (Farajallah), the operations director at the mosque, to come talk about what they needed. We assumed that because of the rhetoric that was already going on, something might happen. There was a sense of dread.
We had a very small staff. We hadn't organized anything like this before. We'd done candlelight vigils and peace marches and so on, but nothing that was sustained over a period of time. Watchful Eyes went on until Ramadan. We probably had a couple hundred volunteers.
It wasn't always easy to fill those shifts, especially when it got cold and rainy.
Volunteers said they got more out of doing it than they were contributing.
For one thing, I gained a great friend: Hisham.
Tom Buchanan, Watchful Eyes volunteer, member Temple Beth Am, Seattle
My wife, Mary-Ellen, and I went out that first night. We felt this is the time to do something because this is serious.
It was 11 at night when we arrived. We stayed until about 1:30, and other people came. I didn't feel scared, but we were certainly wary. We were watchful about cars. We were watchful about noise. The conversation was serious. All of a sudden we're on the front lines here. We're doing something that's going to make a difference in people's lives.
We walked the block, stood in front. And that was enough. In some way, we protected it.
We went back several times after that. We became connected that way. Since then, there's visiting back and forth between the mosque and our temple. When the Jewish Federation shooting happened, people from the mosque came over. They were very warm, very sympathetic, and it was exactly what we did. They came.
Gary Shigenaka, oil-spill expert, Japanese-American
"In World War II, my father and his family were herded into concentration camps simply because they were of Japanese descent."
My father was very simple and soft-spoken and wasn't given to talking about his feelings or experiences. One day, he went upstairs and brought this down. It's his last paycheck from the camp: 87 cents. They used to employ some of the "residents" at the camps. He worked in the galley.
I used to think to myself, if something like that happened in the here-and-now, what would I do? Would I have the courage of my convictions to stand up and say this is wrong?
After 9/11, there were a lot of parallels to Pearl Harbor. It was almost like a common thread with the Islamic community. I remember thinking, Bin Laden, he's never going to win the war, but in other ways, he's won. He's changed American society. People were basically convicting an entire religion, an entire group of people.
My dad, he kept his last paycheck for 50 years. In his wallet, he carried his ID card from the camp. I asked him about it once and he said, "You never know when you might need it again."
Mary Schlichter, mother whose son turned 1 a few weeks before 9/11
"Please know that for every individual who wants to make threats or actually attempt to carry them out, there are many, many more who understand."
I guess just having a young child made me think about this world that I was raising him in. What's the long-term impact of this going to be?
I wanted to make some kind of supportive connection to counterbalance the polarized talk that was going on. I saw the growing mound of bouquets and flowers appearing there every day and I thought, this is something that I could do.
Dropping off the flowers, it did feel emotional. I'm feeling emotional right now. You can probably hear it in my voice.
I remember parking my car, and having my son attached to me in a sling. I felt like this twinge of a safety concern — not for me so much, but for my son. Then I told myself, I'm going to feel this little twinge, but I'm not going to let that stop me from doing what I really want to do.
There was a woman there I handed the bouquet to. I remember walking away feeling really good. We made this gesture to a community that I didn't really have a connection to.
Sonja Williamson, Idriss Mosque neighbor, Buddhist
There was a gentleman inside giving a short teaching into the primary beliefs of Islam. He told us it was his son who was shot at. His son. And yet although it was his own child who was threatened, he showed no sense of hatred or revenge. It was a profound experience for me. I shall never forget it."
They invited us in, asked that we take our shoes off, of course. We'd never been inside a mosque before.
It was one of the most peaceful places I've been in my life. That's what I felt then, and that's what I'm feeling now.
I was shocked at the amount of hatred being pointed toward the Muslim people in general. It's just not acceptable in any sense of the word. This a country based on freedom of religion, for crying out loud. I've felt that since I was 7 years old, and I heard about pagans. I talked to my parents. I said, if they worship a different God, what's the difference? What difference does it make what you call it? I remember my parents were a little bit appalled.
Kenneth Barger, Spanish interpreter, atheist
"I know many people vent their impotent rage over recent events against the wrong targets ... It occurred to me I don't really know much about Islam in the first place... I think it would behoove me to learn more."
A few nights after September 11th, I was driving with a headlight out. A cab in front of me slowed down and stopped. The cabbie walked back, and I rolled down my window. He was a Middle Eastern guy, from Iran, I think. The guy was ready to fight me. He said, "I got a lot of people following me around with one headlight!" He was absolutely furious because he had been hassled so much.
It really broke my heart. I think something really terrible has to happen to you in order to get that mad. A couple friends and I decided we ought to do something, so I took flowers to different mosques and wrote letters asking for a copy of the Koran in Spanish.
Michael Verchot, Watchful Eyes volunteer, atheist
"We stand with you at this time and in the future."
If you don't stand with people when they're being attacked, it's hard to call yourself an American. That's what America is: a place where people can worship as they wish or not worship at all.
I grew up in the New York/New Jersey area. I have family in Pennsylvania. I felt like there was no place to go here immediately after 9/11.
It was a powerful thing to be with them at the mosque. It was this incredible spirit of, we're all one community, we're all American, all one people. It really was encircling the mosque. Folks were getting to know each other, shaking hands, getting tours.
It was a sense of home. That was the place we could go be with people and talk about it.
We weren't there to launch a movement. All of us were there for very personal expressions of who we were as individuals — who we wanted to be, what we wanted this country to be.
Democracy isn't always pretty. But as a country, we do embrace diversity. We do welcome folks. We do believe in freedom of belief and freedom of speech. It's easy to say these are platitudes, but look all around and you'll see it.
Erik Wilson Weiberg, a pastor at Ballard First Lutheran Church, Watchful Eyes volunteer
I went to the mosque on Friday afternoons, during worship. I wore my clerical collar intentionally, to be a visible sign of religious solidarity, a sign that Christians and Muslims can get along.
We had conversations with the folks coming in and out. I remember two men from a Lebanese bakery who brought pita bread. I asked if they would be willing to provide enough to give it as Holy Communion in my church. They did it as a way of expressing thanks for our presence. We have 150 worshippers on Sundays. They brought me a lot of bread.
Rabbi Jonathan Singer, Temple Beth Am
It was a very meaningful experience to stand there, and stand there as a Jew, with a kippah, a yarmulke, and be welcomed — which we very much were.
There's a diversity of people who worship there. They want to have a place they can go to as Americans and be unmolested.
It was probably transformative for them, too, to have all these people come and stand there with them, to see how America can be different.
Aziz Junejo, Idriss Mosque worshipper
After 9/11, Muslims were putting American flags on their cars. A large percentage stopped coming to the mosque out of fear. They just prayed at home. September 11th really had a big effect on the Muslim community.
It was a problem that turned out to be an opportunity for us. The day after the gasoline incident, we started getting cards. The very next day, it was unbelievable how many people showed up. That weekend, we had 900-1,000 people visit. We were completely unprepared.
After that, Hisham bought a coffee machine. Women brought scarves, so visitors could put them on. It was this continual flow. We became tour directors overnight. Here's our washroom where we wash for prayers. Upstairs is the women's section. We had pamphlets. They're eating cookies, drinking coffee, taking tours. It went on like that for two months. Can you believe that?
We had people that wanted to see the mosque all the time. We developed a speakers bureau, teaching people how to speak, making sure they were qualified.
We could have gone to all the interfaith meetings in the world and it wouldn't have done that. It was such a wonderful time.
Patrick Cunningham, formerly of Snohomish, drove a van that transports wheelchair patients until he was convicted in the 9/13 mosque incident
From a handwritten letter before sentencing:
I sat in front of the TV as the horrific terrorist attacks unfolded. I am not an emotionally strong person.
I watched horrified as victims jumped from the upper floors and windows. I watched 300 of New York's finest suiting up ... within minutes the building collapsed! I fell on my knees crying and praying that they wouldn't suffer too long.
It took hours to reach my mother, daughter and sister.
For the next two days, I drank and medicated myself day and night, sleeping little. At this level of intoxification I became delusional.
For the past 8-10 years I have been an "at home" alcoholic. I would drink nightly and pass out on the living-room couch.
I convinced myself a "terrorist cell" was using the mosque as a cover!
I don't recall driving to the mosque. The "fumes" from the gasoline brought me to my senses enough that I remember saying out loud, "My God, what am I doing here!"
I was confronted by two men halfway out of the parking lot.
I kept walking away and brandishing a small pistol, saying "stay back" over and over. I was in fear for my life.
I turned to run and fell flat on my face. I was taken unconscious to Harborview Hospital.
When I came to I was so full of shame and remorse I didn't want to live, but I thought of my wife and I thanked God for giving me another chance at life.
If I could turn back the clock, I would have boarded a train on the morning of September 12th and returned to New York and volunteered in search and rescue.
Adnan Bakkar, trustee, Idriss Mosque, retired Boeing engineer originally from Syria
They asked me as trustee of the mosque if I wanted to press charges at him. I told them no. (But) it was out of our hands. They pressed federal charges against him.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Jacobs Rothstein
Order dated July 13, 2004:
On Dec. 17, 2002, this court sentenced Patrick Michael Cunningham to 78 months custody.
The court has been notified by the family that Mr. Cunningham is suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease.
A (medical) report (states he) has lost the use of both legs and of one arm entirely and that his "life expectancy is less than a year, perhaps considerably less." The report concludes, "I recommend we release him as soon as possible. We are not prepared to care for a patient totally dependent on mechanical ventilation."
The court has also received correspondence from the family of Mr. Cunningham, and in particular from his sister. She writes of the difficulty the family is experiencing expecting that her brother will die in prison. She reports that Mr. Cunningham has been a model prisoner while incarcerated.
The court hereby vacates Mr. Cunningham's sentence.
Patrick Cunningham was released on July 15, 2004. He died three weeks later.
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Maureen O'Hagan is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
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