National News

‘Make Sure Not to Talk Any Arabic’: American Muslims and Their Guns

Posted June 8, 2018 4:20 p.m. EDT

When Sheima Muhammad takes her Glock pistol to her local gun range in central Ohio, she gets funny looks. As a 25-year-old woman, she stands out from the other customers, who are mostly older men. Then there is the matter of her headscarf.

“I don’t get looked like as a normal person who’s just trying to protect themselves,” said Muhammad, who emigrated from Turkey as a baby with her family, who are Kurds, and is a naturalized U.S. citizen.

American Muslims like Muhammad say they own guns for the same reasons as anyone else: for protection, for hunting and sport shooting, for gun and rifle collections or for their work.

They also cite another factor: fear of persecution, at a time when hate crimes against Muslims have soared to their highest levels since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But owning a gun is no assurance of security. Muslim gun owners are viewed with suspicion by gun stores, ranges and clubs, and occasionally met with harassment.

Muhammad said she decided to buy a pistol after a frightening encounter with a stranger in the parking lot of the grocery store where she worked in Columbus.

“I just felt defenseless,” she recalled. “I did not feel like I could protect myself. It took a toll on me even until today. I’m overcautious, always watching my back.”

She goes to the gun range once a week.

“People stare at me and look me up and down, kind of like: ‘What are you doing owning a gun? We know what you people do with the guns,'” she said. “I walk into the place and I feel like an alien.”

A Pew Research Center survey of American Muslims last year found that nearly half said they had experienced discrimination: 32 percent reported being treated with suspicion; 19 percent said they had been called offensive names; and 6 percent said they had been physically threatened or attacked.

Muslims represent about 1 percent of the U.S. population, and there is no reliable data on how many own guns. Of a dozen Muslim gun owners interviewed recently in Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma and Virginia, most said they had faced skepticism and even hostility.

Gun ranges and gun shops in several states have declared themselves “Muslim-free zones.”

One gun range owner in Arkansas, Jan Morgan, gained national attention in 2014 when her business was one of the first to declare a ban on Muslims. (She used her newfound prominence to run for governor, losing in the Republican primary last month.)

In Florida, a gun store and range that banned Muslims was sued for discrimination in 2015. The suit was dropped, but the company still sells bumper stickers that proclaim it “Muslim-free.”

And in Oklahoma, a federal judge is considering a lawsuit filed by a Muslim man, an Army reservist who was turned away from a gun range in 2015. Before kicking him out, employees at the range demanded to know whether he was part of a “jihad,” according to the lawsuit.

— Nezar Hamze

Gun ownership was the preserve of white men since before the nation’s founding, when the colonies prohibited women and slaves from owning firearms and banned sales of guns to Native Americans. As the right to own a gun expanded, so did tensions. After armed members of the Black Panthers occupied the state Capitol in 1967, California passed a law banning the carrying of loaded firearms in public.

The American Muslims who The New York Times interviewed recently said their decision to own guns was simply a matter of exercising their hard-earned rights.

One of them is Nezar Hamze, a deputy sheriff in Broward County, Florida, who is also active in the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national civil rights group.

“I’d rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it,” he said of the Second Amendment.

“Muslims have a victim mentality, or immigrant mentality, when it comes to gun ownership,” said Hamze, 41, who lives in Fort Lauderdale and whose father emigrated from Lebanon. “They’re afraid that they’re going to be put on some sort of list if they purchase, or if they go to a gun range and shoot.”

He added: “They’re diminishing their rights for themselves. They can practice their Second Amendment, just like every other American does.”

— Hassan Shibly

Hassan Shibly, executive director of CAIR Florida, and a son of Syrian immigrants, said he “became a handgun owner reluctantly.”

“It got to the point where people I know who are in law enforcement actually recommended that I take some means to make sure that I can protect myself and my family,” said Shibly, 32, who lives in Tampa.

Shibly has received death threats because of his advocacy on behalf of Muslims, he said, and mosques he attends have also gotten threats.

“I’m not a reckless gun enthusiast,” he said. “I’m somebody who reluctantly owns these tools for purposes of self-defense, while recognizing the great burden they come with. They’re not simply for sports, or entertainment, or for culture.”

He owns two rifles, but has never had to fire them.

“We’re not gun owners because of Islam,” Shibly said. “We are gun owners because of the violence perpetrated in this country against minorities.”

He added: “The solution to the problems we face is not more violence, or even more guns. It is engagement, education, service, community organization, political involvement.”

— Chaikirah Parker

According to the Pew study, only 16 percent of nonwhite women in the United States reported owning a gun. Chaikirah Parker, a black woman who converted to Islam at 16, plans to become one of them.

“I don’t go outside in the evening time anymore by myself, and I am a very independent woman,” said Parker, 40, who works for a military contractor and lives in Tampa. She said she converted after learning more about the history of African-American Muslims, and soon after decided that she needed to take safety precautions because of her hijab. Signs with racial and religious slurs were put near her home after the Sept. 11 attacks, but with young children, she did not want to have a gun at home.

But now, given a new wave of anti-Muslim violence, she will soon buy her first gun. She said she was looking at guns that were both attractive — “they do have pink guns that are chrome and flashy and pretty,” she said, chuckling — and easy to handle. “I looked at a .45, something like that,” she said. “It does have a little bit more punch to it, plus something that I can conceal and can hold in my purse.” — Ahmad Aboukar

Ahmad Aboukar likes to collect guns.

“I got into firearms through media, through entertainment, through video games,” said Aboukar, 22, of Dublin, Ohio, a recent graduate of Ohio State University.

“I have a few rifles and a few handguns,” he said. “These rifles I picked specifically for intended uses: One could be collector value, another one could be self-defense, and a third could be just to have for the heck of having, to try something else out.”

He has a concealed-carry permit, he said.

For Aboukar, gun ownership is intrinsic to his pride in being American. “This nation’s founding principles were about self-determination and independence and the right of self-defense,” he said. “Owning firearms is not just this playing toy soldier or having some weird obsession with guns or violence, or whatever it may be.”

He added: “They allow you to have a sense of liberty that not many others can afford. And I think that’s something truly remarkable.”

But he has not joined the National Rifle Association. “They align too closely to one political party, and I think you need to be a little more bipartisan to tackle these issues that are important to this nation,” he said.

— Janice Rigsbee and James Lee Rigsbee II

The Rigsbees are a gun-loving couple who live in Cleveland, Oklahoma.

“I love the NRA, I love what they stand for,” said Janice Rigsbee, 45, a retired line cook. “I believe they’re a vital asset to the gun owners’ community because they’re out here to protect our rights.”

A Native American and a member of the Choctaw tribe, Rigsbee was raised around guns and hunting. She converted to Islam in 2001.

“My father was a very conservative Republican,” said Rigsbee, wearing a hijab emblazoned with an AR-15-style rifle. “He always told me to protect my First and Second Amendment rights at all costs. He taught me how to shoot and taught me gun safety.”

She met her husband, James Lee Rigsbee II, 56, in a class on Islam. James Lee Rigsbee is also a convert. He served in the National Guard, and now works part time in security and also at a private Islamic school.

“It has nothing to do, really, with my religion,” Janice Rigsbee said of her gun ownership. “I believe that every law-abiding citizen has that right; we’ve had that right for 300 years and no one dare take that right away from me — whether I’m a Muslim, Christian, pagan, whatever.”

— Raja’ee Fatihah

An Army reservist who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Raja’ee Fatihah, 31, says that on most firing ranges, “everybody is very open to one another.”

But not at the Save Yourself Survival and Tactical Gun Range in Oktaha. In July 2015, the owners posted a sign near the front entrance announcing that Muslims were not permitted at the facility and that the business was a “Muslim-free establishment.” Three months later, Fatihah dropped by.

“I thought that visiting that gun range would be a good way to build a bridge with those people, who I knew already had some animosity toward Muslims,” he said. “That wasn’t the case. As soon as they knew that I was Muslim, they wanted me to leave the establishment.”

A lawyer for the gun range said it would not comment on the litigation. Fatihah, an investigator for the state of Oklahoma, owns six guns. “A couple of them are heirlooms,” he said. “One is a shotgun from my great-great-grandfather, another is a pistol that I got from my grandfather. I don’t think either of them are functional right now.” His father taught him to shoot, and Fatihah is now teaching his oldest son.

“I was a member of the NRA once upon a time,” said Fatihah, a father of four. “They have a good purpose; I think well-intentioned, but I think sometimes they are a little extreme in terms of what kinds of policies they entertain.” He wants to see the group take more initiative on gun safety and education, he said.

— Adam Abutaa

A recent graduate of George Mason University in Northern Virginia, Adam Abutaa, 22, is an ardent supporter of tougher restrictions on gun ownership.

“I think let everyone keep their guns, but make the process a lot harder,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that I was able to walk into a gun shop and buy a gun in 15 minutes. It wouldn’t hurt to make it a little more difficult.”

Abutaa, the son of Palestinians who emigrated from Jerusalem 40 years ago, owns one gun.

“It’s not the social norm for a Muslim,” he said. “At least, people wouldn’t expect for a Muslim to be the type of person to conceal and carry, or go to the range, without it being suspicious.”

When he practices shooting, he does so with other Palestinian friends, he said. “We’ll go to the range just to shoot,” he said. “We’ll just make sure not to talk any Arabic.” Abutaa said that owning a gun helped him stand out. “When I talk to non-Muslims and we’re talking about guns, and at the end they find out that I’m Muslim, it almost throws them off,” he said.

“It sort of breaks those barriers just to show that we’re not only about being at the mosque,” he added. “There are normal things that we like, like everyone else.”

— Inshirah Abdel-Jaleel

“I got my own gun to have some protection in my home and when I travel late,” said Inshirah Abdel-Jaleel, 67, a Long Island native who lives in Tampa. “I’ve never faced any discrimination or racist tactics at a gun range.”

A recently retired Islamic Studies teacher who owns a .380 handgun for protection, Abdel-Jaleel can sometimes be found at the range training Muslim women. “Women are soft targets because they wear the hijab all day long,” he said. “And folks know that they are Muslim. They can’t blend.”

He added: “Although I am a gun owner, I would pray to God to never have to use my gun against another human being. I don’t want to ever have to shoot or take the life of another human being, because it’s well known in Islam that if you take the life of a person, it’s as if you’ve killed the whole of humanity.”