Muslim Group Calls for Interfaith Vigils in Wake of San Bernardino Shooting

Muslim women gesture in prayer while congregating outside the Baitul Hameed Mosque in Chino on December 3, 2015. People attended a prayer vigil there to commemorate lives lost a day after the massacre in San Bernardino. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Condemnations and prayer vigils have become an almost immediate response by Muslim leaders in the wake of attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam. And the San Bernardino shootings were no exception.

A few hours after the two shooters were identified as Muslims on Wednesday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) of greater Los Angeles leapt into action. The group condemned the attack and put forward the brother-in-law of shooting suspect Syed Farook. He mourned the 14 lives lost and expressed sorrow for the now 21 people who were wounded.

The next day, the Baitul Hameed Mosque in Chino, the largest in San Bernardino County, held a vigil. The primary purpose of the event was to show support for the victims’ families, said Dr. Ahsan Khan a few hours before the event.

“This is also an opportunity for us to show that the majority of Muslims in the world are peace-loving, and what we believe is antithetical to what we witnessed,” Khan said.

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But some Muslims -- particularly in Northern California -- have been rethinking this strategy, said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Bay Area office of CAIR.

“I don’t anticipate any vigils being driven or led by the Muslim community in Northern California,” Billoo said.

Instead, CAIR is encouraging community members to join interfaith vigils. The organization has staked out the position that its community members experience terrorist attacks -- regardless of whether they’re perpetrated in the name of Islam -- as Americans, not as Muslims.

“We don’t have a unique connection to any of the shooters,” Billoo said. “It’s really important for us to reiterate the double standard that expects Muslims to do something more or different because a criminal has a Muslim identity.”

For example, Billoo said, most Americans don’t expect Christians to denounce crimes committed by Christians.

Connecting local mosques with what happened in San Bernardino could also put community members at risk, said Billoo. And she said, focusing the attention on Islam distracts people from what she believes is a larger contributing factor to these mass shootings: easy access to guns.

“Before we knew that it was a Muslim suspect ... we know this was number 300-plus of mass shootings in 2015 thus far,” Billoo said. “It’s frightening that we're not safe anywhere. Not at schools, not at Planned Parenthood and not at clinics.”

Khan, the organizer of the vigil at the mosque in San Bernardino County, understands the Bay Area CAIR’s stance. But he said this shooting was different.

“My point is that the victims happen to be our neighbors. We grew up in San Bernardino County,” Khan said. “I went to school in San Bernardino County. My parents live in San Bernardino County.”

Khan said the vigil was about more than Muslims denouncing violence perpetrated by so-called Muslims. It was about citizens of San Bernardino County coming together to support one another.

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