Why I Asked the Maryland Senate to Help Improve Security at Our Islamic School

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An urgent message from my children’s school principal, Br Haroon Baqai, flashed on my phone. I left the main hall in the Under Armour building where I was accompanying Dr Zainab Chaudry as she spoke on a women’s panel, to take the call. “Sister Hena, would you be able to testify on a bill in Maryland State Senate?” he asked.

I have testified before at our city council and at the House hearing for the Maryland Trust Act. This was the first time I would testify at our state senate.

The bill was SB 1191, a state grant for schools and child care centers. This would allow private schools to apply for funding for security upgrades for facilities at risk of hate crimes or attacks. State funds may be used only for funding additional security training needs, security cameras, security-related technology, door hardening, improved lighting, or other security-related facility upgrades. Delegate Pena-Melnyk (D) was going to put it through the House of Delegates (HB 1661).

My children walk to school every day. After the duas are read and we renew our intentions on relying on Allah, I am grateful that the school takes security seriously. Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines hate as a "deep, enduring, intense emotion expressing animosity, anger, and hostility towards a person, group, or object. There is a lot of hate expressed these days. Muslims in America live in the twilight zone of hate: Our imams and leaders are targeted by ISIS and by people who hate our religion. Our masajid are vandalized and now increasingly so are our homes.

Security is not cheap. Many of the security systems cost thousands of dollars as does the hiring staff. In February 2017, the Governor of New York announced a $25 million grant program to boost safety and security in New York’s schools and daycare centers at risk because of their ideology, beliefs, or missions.

I met with former House delegate Justin Ross, who was lobbying for the passage of this bill. We were escorted to Senator Manno’s office in the deceptively plain Miller Senate Building. And from there to the Education, Health and Environment committee hearing.

Testifying is not as complicated as many may think. It is a form of citizen engagement. Lawmakers want to hear from the people who are affected by the laws made. They respect that you took the time to come and testify.

On the panel was a teacher from Jewish Day School, the head of security of the Greater Jewish community in Baltimore and Yehuda Neuberger of The Baltimore Jewish Council.

I read my testimony with my voice shaking at times as I thought of the faces of the children come to learn at Al Huda School. (see my testimony below)

Neuberger asked the state to do whatever it can do to battle the hate. “It is an important part of our American culture to show our religious identity,” he added. A point he noted was that bills like these have a multiplier effect because while applying for grants school have to assess their security systems.

Major Keith Tiedemann read an email that the Jewish Community Centers received that was so dehumanizing, it left me shuddering, with tears streaming down my face.

The senator from Baltimore County, Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, immediately, asked to be added as a cosponsor to the bill. Her district has a large Muslim population. She said threats have increased in her area.

The support from the Senate committee make some believe that the bill will pass. Advocacy and activism is dire to health of our communities. I encourage all to get involved in their local, county and state issues. They directly affect the way we live our everyday lives. Civic engagement cannot come once every four years.

After coming back from the charming cobbled Annapolis, its statues of Thurgood Marshall and its bloody sacred shores where slaves ships loaded with Muslim ancestors landed, I reflected on the ayahs of Surah al Anaam. They who believe and do not mix their belief with injustice – those will have security, and they are [rightly] guided.(6:82). We really need to address injustices in our communities, in our homes, and purge our belief of injustice. Only then can we find peace and security in our hearts, homes, places of worship and education.

Here is my testimony, delivered on March 22, 2017 at the Maryland Senate.

Dear Chairwoman Conway and Vice Chair Pinsky:

On behalf of the faculty, parents and student body of the Al-Huda School in College Park, Maryland, please accept our full support of Senator Manno’s legislation.

As a mother of four children who attend the Al Huda School, a full-time accredited Islamic school for kindergarten through high school, having the support of the Maryland General Assembly and knowing you are working on this important legislation is very comforting to my community at this time. The number of hate groups specifically targeting Muslims in the US has nearly tripled in the past year with Islamophobic hate crime soaring, according to a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In the past, the Al Huda school was targeted for hate crimes like when a three-foot-high wooden cross was set afire on its front lawn. We have received online threats and just recently a man dressed up as a fake police officer came to the campus and threatened staff. The latest FBI statistics show that hate crimes against Muslims grew by 67 percent in 2015. In Silver Spring, just last month, someone sent a note to two mosques offering to donate money to charity “for every Muslim slaughtered” and drew a stick figure depiction of someone being killed. Many of our school children and their families attend these places of worship.
A particularly poignant moment for me was when children from our community wrote letters of support to the children who attend the Jewish Community Center, which had received bomb threats. One of the letter read, “we are with you because we understand what you are going through.” Hate crimes affect children in lasting ways.

Any and all assistance in security upgrades at this time of increasing threats is deeply appreciated.

Again, thank you Committee members and Senator Manno for introducing this important legislation, it has our full support.