There’s a quote from the Quran on the wall of the Fort Pierce Islamic Center, where Omar Mateen and his family came to pray. “That ye may know each other,” it says, “(Not that ye may despise each other.)”
Every time Mateen removed his shoes and walked to the bathing area where Muslims wash before prayer, he would have passed these words.
The Fort Pierce Islamic Center is housed in a building that was once a church, on a street where there are at least five Baptist churches on a 3-mile stretch. The area is heavily Christian, and mostly white, with a significant population of African Americans, but few Muslims. The region is known, literally, as White City, but the Fort Pierce Islamic Center serves worshippers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Palestine, Jordan and Afghanistan.
“He let us down,” says worshipper Habiba Haque, a mother of two, as she wipes away a tear. “We tried so hard, so hard to express ourselves, that we are good people.”
The Islamic center has faced threats and at least one instance of harassment in the days since Mateen killed 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando early Sunday morning in what is now considered the deadliest mass shooting in American history and the worst terrorist attack since 9/11. But when this reporter wanders cautiously into the women’s wing of the center as the congregants are sitting down to break their fast for Ramadan — the annual holy month during which Muslims eat only before sunrise and after sunset — the response is overwhelmingly kind.
They offer tea and dates. One insists I take a shrimp fritter. Another woman takes the scarf off her own head to wrap it around my waist, “like a sarong,” to hide my knees peeking out from under my shorts.
They all express complete shock at Mateen’s actions, and agree they never would have expected such a brutal act of violence from someone in their community. Because the mosque separates men and women, most of the women congregants did not have as regular contact with Mateen himself as they had with his mother and sisters. Still, they say, he seemed just like everyone else.
Marian Alladin, a retired schoolteacher, says that Mateen had paid a condolence call to her husband after he broke his leg in an accident. “That kid came to my house, he came with his wife, his son, and he sat with him,” she recalled, saying he was “very pleasant, very sociable.”
His mother and sisters are just like the other ladies at the center, multiple women say, gushing over children and grandchildren and comparing beauty and fashion tips. They are well respected in the congregation, and known as good members of the community. “He came from a very nice family,” Alladin says.
A representative for the Center for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was at the mosque on Monday to field inquiries from reporters, since the mosque’s administration was not equipped to manage the deluge of media requests. “Our hearts are with the victims,” said Wilfredo Ruiz, communications director for CAIR of Florida, adding the shooting was a “heinous act” that “has no excuse.” He also said that CAIR is urging all mosques and Islamic community centers to implement a “deradicalization” program, in which a team of mental-health professionals and lawyers could reach out to troubled individuals “precrime,” when there is not necessarily evidence of an intent to harm (since it’s difficult to call the police on something as vague as a shift in mood or a change in personality). If there is a suspicion of actual violence, Ruiz urged all community members to contact the police immediately.
Many of the women say they are concerned about anti-Muslim violence in response to the attacks, and they are upset that the actions of one disturbed congregant would reflect poorly on the entire community at the center. “We’re afraid of backlash, targeting us because he came to this mosque,” Alladin says. None of the women interviewed say they could recall any time when anti-gay sentiments were ever expressed at the mosque, and all say that gay Muslims would be welcome to worship there.
Read More: Thousands Gather in Orlando for Somber Vigil
Most of all, the women expressed a sadness that Mateen had used a religion that teaches peace and kindness as a justification for his act of violence. “If he was religious, he would never do these things,” Haque says. “Killing innocent people is like killing all of humanity. It’s in the Quran.”