Increased security needed after mosque burning, says Muslim civil rights group

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

A Muslim civil rights group is calling for stepped-up security around the nation's mosques after a suspicious fire burned down the Joplin, Mo., Islamic Center early Monday morning.

Ibrahim Hooper, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), says that the Joplin mosque fire and the shooting attack at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee on Sunday have him worried for the safety of those attending services at local mosques during the holy week of Ramadan. On Tuesday, an unknown vandal also smashed the sign of a mosque in Rhode Island, says Hooper. His organization has called for increased police presence around mosques, though it's unclear if any departments will oblige.

The most recent fire came only five weeks after the Joplin mosque's security camera recorded an unidentified man setting fire to the mosque in the middle of the night. That blaze was stopped before it caused too much damage, though the FBI has not found the culprit. The mosque, which now lies in ashes, served about 50 families in the area. While the FBI hasn't officially ruled the fire an arson, the earlier incident suggests that's likely.

Advocates say that the fire, other recent attacks against mosques and Sunday's deadly shooting at a Sikh Temple by a suspected white supremacist an hour before services threatens the country's core promise of religious freedom.

"America is still not getting it," said Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University's School of International Service. Ahmed traveled to 100 of the nation's approximately 2,000 mosques a few years ago with a team of researchers and found that vandalism of and protests against mosques rose sharply after the Sept. 11 attacks. (Hate incidents against Muslims peaked in 2001, when they grew 1,600 percent over the 2000 number, according to the FBI's hate crimes statistics. But in 2010, there was another, smaller spike, with nearly 200 Muslims confirmed as victims of hate crimes that year. Those figures don't include attacks against mosques, which, depending on the size of the congregation, can have hundreds of victims.)

During his research, Ahmed visited a mosque in Columbia, Tenn., that had been burned down and defaced with painted swastikas in 2008. In Murfreesboro, Tenn., the construction site of a future mosque was vandalized and set on fire while opponents sued to try to legally stop it from being built in 2010. (They lost.)

Ahmed and other Muslim civil rights advocates blame politicians and the media for not pushing back against attacks on Muslims, which they think only fuels this violence. (The advocacy group the Islamic Circle of North America took matters into its own hands this year, starting a multimillion dollar advertising campaign to counter negative messages about Muslims.) At a Republican presidential primary debate, Newt Gingrich said that people of Muslim faith should have to give a special loyalty oath before they would be allowed to be nominated to a Cabinet-level position. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota, recently alleged that the Muslim Brotherhood influenced Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's longtime aide Huma Abedin. (Sen. John McCain chastised Bachmann for the "specious and degrading' attack.)

"The temperature must be brought down, it must be brought down by the leaders of America," Ahmed said. "They cannot allow this almost wildfire of prejudice and ignorance to just rage as it's raging now."

"There's a pattern of violence. These incidents are frequent," he said. "It is part of this bigger atmosphere in which it is very, very uncomfortable to simply be a Muslim."