Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Just another mosque burning

October 11, 2012
The Joplin City Missouri Mosque burned to the ground on August 6 this year. On September 30 the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo would have as well had it not been made of brick and mortar. Thankfully, no one was injured or killed since the suspect entered at a time when the mosque was empty. Is that why our nation does not notice? Or do we feel that Muslims deserve this?

The 60,000 square foot Islamic Center of Greater Toledo sits beside Interstate 75 and has the distinction of being the second oldest and one of the largest mosques in the United States. It is one of only two mosques in North America where men and women pray side by side, separated by a short partition. It also has a female president-me-and an executive committee that is three-quarters female.

I was rounding at the hospital and rushed to the mosque thinking it was a false alarm or maximally an electrical fire. The smoke was so thick that entry for investigation could not be accomplished for two hours. Why were there so many fire trucks and even more police cars? I had left a busy Sunday at the mosque just three hours ago. My mind still tries to absorb the State Fire Marshal’s statement that it was arson. I wondered whether the creepy Joker-style letter sent in mid-August with the word “stopped” written in Arabic and a smiley face drawn in grease was connected.

The video surveillance system caught a middle-aged white male entering the mosque and within twelve hours of the publication of this photograph, a woman identified him and reported that he had made many anti-Muslim statements. At the time of arrest he said “(expletive) the Muslims”. He also had 3 guns in his car and the video shows him walking the hallways of the mosque with a revolver. Randy Linn, age 51, has been charged with a hate-crime.

How did Linn enter the mosque? The bravado to pour gasoline on the carpet in the center of the prayer hall and set it alight contrasts with his seeming ignorance of the security cameras.

The walk-through of the mosque before it was given back to us by the authorities will remain etched in my mind. The power had been shut off so the trek was murkier. Soot floated in black puddles in ankle high water, ceiling tiles swelled with the sprinkler water, some already giving way to hanging wires. Smoke layered the books and blackened the wall hangings. Even the inside of the high dome had punched out areas in it. In a localized fire how could he have disabled the entire building?

Did Linn learn the geography of the building during the guided tours at the time of the International Festival in mid September? Some members seem to remember him wanting to come into the mosque in the summer, but he looked suspicious so they said the mosque was closed.

The days have just blended together and during the Friday prayer attended by Muslims all over the Greater Toledo area, grown men from dentists to retirees have sobbed. Many members don’t want to see the prayer hall and when they get the courage to, their faces pale as though it were a grave. A sickening testimony to overpowering hate.

The support from the multi-faith community of Toledo exactly one week after the attack has been heartwarming. And though these prayers and moral support go a long way to balm our wounds there is this constant unease within me: who will be next?

And while I’m relieved that he has been apprehended and one more hate-crazed man is off the streets, I’m unable to comprehend why this did not get national attention. In barely a 2 month time frame there have been nine attacks on Sikh and Muslim places of worship. Wade Michael Page who killed six in the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin was an army veteran and allegedly had links to a white supremacist group. Similarly, Randy Linn is an ex-Marine who feels that Muslims “get a free pass”. It is unknown whether Linn acted alone or not.

Local television stations had to disable comments on the reports about the Islamic Center attack for the refrain of many was that “the Muslims deserve this”. Our nation is being saturated with hate speech. Anti-Muslim remarks like those of Senator Joe Walsh (R., Ill) or the vitriol of Michelle Bachman (R., MN) serve to enrage and stir violence in probably war-scarred individuals like Page and Linn.

Wires and hoses criss-cross the Islamic Center now and yellow scaffolding extends the length, breadth and height of the prayer hall. I remember the magnificence of the prayer hall and the glorious stained glass windows and then the black crater at its center and now bare floor with areas where the padding sticks obstinately to the floor. The pristine exterior belies the ravages within.

Though the questions stream endlessly the solutions seem crisp. We must call out Islamophobia when we see it; just like anti-Semitism, it starts with words and ends in deaths.

The attack on the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo was not an attack on Muslims but on our constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and protection of all citizens. I’m stunned by the attack on the Islamic Center but even more grieved by the collective national shrug in response to these tragedies: it’s just another mosque burning.

Dr. Mahjabeen Islam is president of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo.