Thursday, January 2, 2014

Speech at re-opening of Islamic Center of Greater Toledo

Dr. Mahjabeen Islam was president of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in 2012

Sunday, December 15, 2013
Assalamoalaikum and may peace be upon all of you!

Some events remain forever etched in our minds. You remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when they happened. Like 9/11.

And so it was for me for Sunday September 30th 2012.

I was doing rounds at Toledo Hospital and as is my custom, I had left my purse in the nurses’ station. When I came back from the patient’s room there was a flood of messages on my phone. The first I checked was from Imam Farooq: there had been a fire at the Center, the voice mail said. I raced down I-75 convinced that it was a false alarm or else a short circuit. From a distance I could see the ladder of the fire truck touching the minarets and a plume of smoke exuding from the side of the dome.

About 4 hours later Fire Marshall Frank Reitmeir told me it was no accident but arson instead. I remember driving home that night; numb, dazed, robotic.

The next day the Fire Marshall and Police Chief had us walk through the Islamic Center. I remember Jim Adray and me walking-rather wading-in a pitch dark Center. Surreal doesn’t describe it. The police’s flashlights darted across the soot-stained walls, the wet floors and the ceilings that seemed to have vomited bunches of wires. The large oval stain and burned carpet in the middle of the men’s prayer area became a sort of insignia of the arson.

Till today I have trouble accepting that in one fire Randy Linn had brought down the entire Islamic Center. Every room was damaged from the water of the sprinkler system.

I remember telling the Fire Marshall that I was a fan of the show 48 Hours and that we needed to find the arsonist in that time frame. Frank tried to hide his disdain for my 48 Hours mind-set. On Tuesday 20 minutes before it would have been 48 hours I called Frank and he said “funny, I was just getting ready to call you, we got him”. “48 hours, Frank” I said with much glee.

The Islamic Center had received threats a couple months before the arson and even though more than a year has elapsed since the arson, I still have trouble believing it sometimes.

Institution building and the placement of processes are very important to an organization. A few years ago we were able to develop a dynamic blast-mail system and it proved indispensable in our hour of grief. We used it to galvanize our community and many people still recall how much they appreciated being kept up to date with all that was going on.

BYOPR was a reverberant theme in those emails. Bring your own prayer rug. Cos we were uncertain if our makeshift arrangements would be adequate for prayer.

By far the most touching moment in those weeks was the united Friday prayer on the Friday after the arson. We had a large tent outside and all the mosques of Toledo cancelled their Friday services and their congregations came to the Islamic Center. A physician who is a member of another mosque was to take a flight that day but rescheduled it just so he could be at the united Friday prayer.

My voice broke as I condoled with the community and several men told me later on that my words had made them cry. We had an amazing sense of unity.

Our unity then was much like a Hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) “The similitude of believers in regard to mutual love, affection and fraternity is that of a body; when any limb of it aches, the whole body aches because of sleeplessness”

We had forgotten our differences and contrary opinions. A sense of shock and grief pervaded all the Muslims of Toledo.

The Multi-Faith prayer the following Sunday was much like the united Friday prayer-this time all faiths came together to help heal our hearts and minds.

I am a firm believer in the concept of God’s maslihah which translates into God’s reason, wisdom and will in everything that happens. In my limited comprehension, I felt that the arson was a call to unity and a demand for justice.

And though that day was able to galvanize the Muslims of Toledo, our continued unity remains a challenge.

Another very difficult point in this nightmare was to hear Randy Linn’s raw hatred toward Muslims when he spoke in court. He claimed it was Fox News that made him just jump up and do it.

I am grateful that Randy Linn was prosecuted at a federal level and I thank the first responders, the Fire Marshall’s office and the police department. My deepest appreciation goes to US Attorneys Steve Dettelbach, Ava Dustin and especially Bridgett Brennan for prosecuting this crime so well and achieving an exemplary sentence for Linn.

The true heroes in this are Randy Linn’s ex-wife, Karen and his co-worker Rikki Slattery. If they had not identified him, Linn could not have been prosecuted. If there were more courageous and principled people like them, the world would be a different place.

Our justice system did superbly with Randy Linn’s sentence, but every day one hears of more Trayvon Martins and Renisha McBrides who are denied justice because they are the wrong skin color.

There are way too many Muslim men that are denied employment or harassed at work because they have a beard. Too many women have to appeal to the courts to be able to wear hijab at their workplace. And Muslims do feel that they live under a state of siege.

As a nation we must move toward embracing the spirit of our constitution where we don’t discriminate on the basis of color, religion and ethnicity.

While we appreciate justice in the arson of the Islamic Center, all of us must first erase our own prejudices and then work toward the equal application of justice.

The great poet-philosopher of Pakistan, Allama Iqbal reflected on the premise of equality in the Quran when he wrote aik hi saf mein kharey ho gaye Mahmood o Ayaz, na koi band raha, na koi banda nawaz: that in the same line of prayer stood the king and the slave, there remained no distinction in status.

By Islam and the constitution of the US all men are created equal. I look forward to a day when our nation will make this a practical reality.

May God’s mercy and choicest blessings be upon all of you!