Firefighters maneuver debris following a fire at the Islamic Society of Joplin, Mo. (Credit: AP/T. Rob Brown)
(updated below – Update II [Fri.])
Shortly after the Islamic Society of Joplin opened a mosque in 2007 in Joplin, a small town in Southwest Missouri, the sign in front was set on fire, an act determined to be arson. On the 4th of July of this year, someone who is undoubtedly a deeply patriotic person was filmed by a surveillance camera throwing a flaming object onto the roof of the mosque in an attempt to burn it down, causing some fire damage (see the video below); despite a $15,000 reward offered by the FBI for information leading to the arrest of those responsible and a clear shot of the attacker’s face, nobody has come forward to identify him.
On Monday of this week — the day after the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin — that same Joplin mosque burned to the ground, completely destroyed by a fire that began in the middle of the night. So powerful was the fire that “only remnants indicated a building had been there, including some stone pillars that were still standing and a few pieces of charred plywood loosely held up by a frame.” Although the cause has not yet been determined, investigators — for obvious reasons — have labeled the fire “suspicious” and are searching for signs of arson. As obviously ugly as these incidents are, they offer an opportunity to make an important statement.
In response to these events, a teenaged member of that mosque, Joplin high school student Laela Zaidi, began using social media such as Reddit to talk about what happened and to discuss the importance of the mosque to her community (it’s not only the town’s only mosque, but the only one within a 50-mile radius, leaving Joplin’s Muslim families with no place to gather for Ramadan); the results of Zaidi’s online efforts (including her defense of her community) are surprisingly moving. In Salon on Monday, Joplin native Susan Campbell described the abundant humanitarianism in the town when it was devastated by a horrendous tornado last year, and called upon residents to tap into those same sentiments now by turning the July 4 attacker into authorities. Local-area churches and synagogues have quickly united in a show of support for the mosque.
Most significantly, a little-publicized online campaign to raise the $250,000 needed to rebuild the mosque has produced extremely quick and impressive results. Yesterday, when Al Jazeera’s The Streamwrote about the then-hours-old campaign, it had already raised 1/5 of the money needed ($51,000). When the campaign was first brought to my attention last night and I tweeted a link to it, it had already raised $75,000. As of this morning, barely 24 hours after the campaign began, just over half of the money needed ($126,000) has been raised. Having this Southwest Missouri mosque be able to quickly raise the money needed to re-build — all from small donations of people on the Internet disgusted by these attacks — would be a powerful statement indeed, and I really encourage everyone who can do so to donate.
This is, of course, far from the only incident of its kind; to the contrary, in a trend largely ignored by the American media, hate crimes against American Muslims are at epidemic levels. After a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee triggered intense community opposition when it attempted to expand in 2010, a fire that was ruled to be arson damaged the mosque; after facing years of vandalism, bomb threats, and efforts by local and state officials (including state judges) to block its expansion, the mosque was finally able to open only this week only after the DOJ and a federal judge (to their credit) intervened on the ground that the mosque’s religious liberty was being infringed.
In October of last year, a Texas man pled guilty “to a hate crime charge stemming from an arson of a children’s playground at the Dar El-Eman Islamic Center in Arlington,” and admitted that the fire was “part of a series of ethnically-motivated acts directed at individuals of Arab or Middle Eastern descent associated with the mosque.” In August of last year, an Oregon man was indicted “on federal hate crime and arson charges for intentionally setting fire to the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center.” In May of last year, a fire at a mosque in Stockton, California was ruled to be arson. Last year in southwest Houston, surveillance cameras “captured images of a group of at least three men in masks” attempting to set fire to a local mosque; “prayer rugs at the back of the mosque were doused with gasoline.”
Last year in Dearborn, Michigan, a serious attack on one of the nation’s largest mosques was thwarted when a man was arrested carrying large amounts of explosives. In Massachusetts last year, the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester was set on fire by a man apprehended before the fire could spread. A fire that seriously damaged a mosque in Wichita, Kansas on Halloween night last year was ruled to be arson. In July of this year, a South Carolina mosque was vandalized; such vandalism against American mosques is incredibly common. On the 4th of July this year, the home of a Pakistani Muslim family in Texas, who have lived in the U.S. for 15 years, had the word “Terrorist” spray-painted onto it and then had ignited fireworks left on their doorstep. Attacks this common and dangerous on churches or synagogues would be a national scandal.
All of this reveals a broader truth: Islamophobia in the United States is pervasive and intense, and worse, is as ignored and tolerated as it is destructive. The greatest harm from these incidents is not to the property they damage. It’s the climate of fear that is created for Muslims living in the United States. As I’ve written about before, it’s hard to put into words how palpable and paralyzing this fear is in American Muslim communities. It’s infuriating to behold: perfectly law-abiding citizens and legal residents feeling — rationally and accurately — that they are subjected to constant surveillance, monitoring, suspicion, denial of basic rights, hostility and worse solely because of their religion and ethnicity.
This happens because overt expression of Islamophobia is, far and away, the most accepted form of bigotry in mainstream American precincts. Now and then, certain expressions of it are so extreme as to embarrass mainstream circles — Peter King’s Congressional investigation into The Enemy Within or the Michele Bachmann attacks on Hillary Clinton’s Muslim aide — and are thus roundly condemend, but more often than not, they are perfectly acceptable.
The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank today suddenly realized that Andrew McCarthy — the former federal prosecutor and oft-quoted “legal expert” now writing obsessive anti-Muslim screeds for National Review – is a hatemongering crackpot with exactly the right last name. The NYPD is exposed for indiscriminately targeting innocent Muslims with mass surveillance and infiltration in their communities, and almost every mainstream state and city politician — led by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and the Democratic mayoral front-runner Christine Quinn — cheers. When demands were made that an Islamic community center be moved away from Ground Zero in Manhattan — as though Muslims generally were to blame for the 9/11 attack — even some prominent liberal politicians supported that demand. And, as I wrote about yesterday, America’s foreign policy is, and for the last decade has been, driven by endless violence against Muslims in numerous predominantly Muslim countries, sending a message loudly and clearly to the American citizenry about the Real Enemy.
This is why enabling this Joplin mosque quickly to raise all the funds it needs to re-build would be a powerful and important statement. It would be a potent demonstration of widespread support for a small Muslim community under siege, and an expression of disgust both for those responsible for the attacks they have suffered and the broader anti-Muslim bigotry that rears its ugly head in so many damaging ways. Those inclined and able to donate can do so here.
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Speaking yesterday at a campaign rally in Colorado, President Obama, as even Politico skeptically put it, “took American exceptionalism to a whole new level  by suggesting that not only is the United States the greatest nation on earth, but every other country wants to be us.” Sayeth the President, to cheers from his flag-waving supporters: “So no matter what the naysayers tell us, no matter how dark the other side tries to make things look, the fact is there is not another country on earth that would not gladly trade places with the United States of America.”
UPDATE: As a result of the strong reaction this event has triggered, and due in no small part to readers here, the fund to re-build the Joplin mosque — on the campaign’s first full day — has, as of 4:00 p.m. Eastern time, raised an amazing $190,000 out of the $250,000 goal set by mosque leaders:
It would be an extraordinary statement if the entire amount could be raised in basically one day, especially since the campaign created a 45-day goal for raising the funds. Displays of human decency like this are emboldening and often contagious.
Update II [Fri.]: In only two days, the online campaign has met and then exceeded the goal set for re-building the mosque: