At Syed Farook's mosque, San Bernardino shooting a trauma for all Muslims

At a Southern California mosque that was once San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook’s place of worship, people are trying to make sense of the shooting spree that left 14 dead. The answers will not come easily, says Hussan Ayloush, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles.

California gunman’s mosque at a loss as worshippers weep for shooting victims

Prayer leader Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for Los Angeles, addresses a congregation at the Riverside Mosque. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

He prayed at their mosque here in Riverside, Calif., performed cleansing ablutions alongside them, sought counsel about how the philosophies of Islam could apply to his life. Once or twice, one worshipper said, he even led Quranic recitations when an imam was absent. "He had a beautiful voice," the former mosque board member said.

And yet, Syed Rizwan Farook, the San Bernardino gunman, was by no means a true Muslim. Of this, Hussam Ayloush was unequivocal.

"This crime was not committed by a Muslim," Ayloush told a congregation of the faithful, his preaching echoing through the Mosque of Riverside during Jumu'ah, the Friday prayer service.

"It was committed by a criminal. By someone who has no value for life.… No one should feel [Farook] represents us. No one should feel we need to apologize. No one in America needs to apologize."

Syed Rizwan Farook's friends and acquaintances thought of him as peaceful and are baffled by his actions. (California Department of Motor Vehicles /Associated Press)

The khutba, or sermon, drew slow nods from worshippers in this Southern California community, as they continued trying to make sense of the shooting spree two days earlier.

Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, were named as the assailants who opened fire at a government services centre on Dec. 2 at Farook's workplace, the Inland Regional Centre, about half an hour north of Riverside in the former steel town of San Bernardino.

The gunfire killed 14 people and wounded 21 others. The couple later died in a shootout with police.

ISIS link

As it emerged Friday that the FBI was now investigating the massacre as a "terrorist attack" — and that Malik had declared her allegiance to ISIS on Facebook — Salma Mahmoud braced for the anti-Islam blowback she has become all too familiar with.

"When we heard about the shooting, the first thing we thought: 'Let it not be a Muslim. Let it not be someone Middle Eastern,'" the 18-year-old said following Friday prayers in Riverside.

"When the names came out, we were very fearful. Fear for my family in general. We got all these phone calls. 'Try not to be out too much with your hijab. Accessorize it more … to seem more Western,'" she said. "This is something my dad advised me."

Salma Mahmoud, 18, says she's 'fearful' about a potential backlash against the Riverside Muslim community in the wake of Wednesday's shooting. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Dalia Kuko, the daughter of the mosque's director, said women who wear the hijab feel most vulnerable. When they brace for bigotry, she said, a common response among Muslim females is to huddle and discuss safety options.

"When there's situations like [the San Bernardino massacre], we say go out in groups, don't be by yourself, be aware of your surroundings," she said. "We're worried we're the ones who are going to be the next targets by people who are upset."

Two weeks before the California massacre, the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a report indicating an uptick in discrimination targeting American Muslims since the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. 

The incidents included: 13 cases of attacks targeting mosques (for example, a vandalized mosque in Texas smeared with feces); six incidents of violence against individuals (in one case, shots fired into the Florida home of a Muslim couple who were out feeding the homeless at the time); and five threats against individuals as well as groups of Muslims (one Oklahoma man threatened to "start shooting anything that looks like a Muslim"). 

In California, Mahmoud was herself targeted by hateful language at her campus, shortly after the Paris attacks. She was walking alone on homecoming night when a man yelled "ISIS!" at her.

"Islam is an identity. No one should feel ashamed of their culture or religion," she said. "But the reality is, some do. My family. Other families."

Farook sought guidance

During his time attending the Riverside mosque, Farook mostly kept to himself. But he often knocked on the door of Mustafa Kuko, director of the Islamic Centre of Riverside, to seek spiritual guidance.

"He had some personal issues he would ask about. He needed my advice," Kuko recalled.

"How, in an Islamic perspective, how he can restructure his American life? What are the guidelines for a relationship with a wife? What are the guidelines in Islam for selecting a wife? He used to ask those kinds of questions."

Mustafa Kuko, director of the Islamic Centre of Riverside, said he had several encounters with Farook. Kuko said Farook often asked him for advice on faith issues. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Kuko often lent his ear, but felt he never got to know Farook properly. He was never introduced to Malik.

Abdulaziz Ahmed, who helps organize the mosque prayer schedule, said he only saw the couple together at the mosque once, during a Qur'an class.

"They come together, and she sit there, she was covered. Full ninja," Ahmed said, referring to Malik's niqab, which he said covered her face except for her eyes.

Outside the mosque, Amir Abdul-Jalil described Farook as a "personal friend" — one who invited him to dinner and once offered to help fix his car for free. He learned about Farook's implication in the massacre on Friday.

"I'm in shock. I just found out, just a few minutes ago. I'm hurt!" he said. "I have his phone number. He would call me and check on me, 'Brother, how are you doing? Do you need anything?'"

Motives unclear

Little is known yet about a possible motive for the shooting on Wednesday. As people streamed out of the place of worship, some questioned why Farook and Malik would leave their six-month-old baby behind to try to kill scores of innocent people and end their own lives in a shootout.

In his address at the mosque, prayer leader Ayloush said the answers may not come so easily. 
"What makes a person turn into a monster like that?" said Ayloush, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles.

Later, he implored his fellow Muslims to instil in their children that they should not feel victimized or carry any sense of blame for the actions of a few perpetrators, simply due to their Islamic faith.

Bilal Abu-Seraj is overcome with emotion as he prays at the Riverside Mosque in California. The 19-year-old college student said he was moved by the words of the prayer leader on Friday, who spoke about honouring the victims of the massacre in San Bernardino. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"It is Islam that makes us know that such targeting and harming of innocent lives is haram, is forbidden in Islam," he said. As he spoke about honouring the victims of San Bernardino, worshipper Bilal Abu-Seraj sat on the carpet, folded his glasses and wept.

"I was thinking about the children. The children that didn't get to see their fathers, their mothers," the 19-year-old college student said afterward.

"We have to think about that.…It could have been me, you, anyone. That's why every Friday I come here and pray and ask God to help us."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong