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Nine Mosques Attacked in String of Violence, Vandalism

by Wes Messamore, published
Photo: Tim Harris / The New York Times

WES MESSAMORE: I’m here with Zahra Billoo, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Davi Barker, the Assistant Director of Muslims 4 Liberty to discuss a recent rash of violence, vandalism, and threatening behavior toward American mosques.

Since the Sikh Temple shooting earlier this month we have seen multiple mosques attacked across the US, seven by my count. We’ve seen worshipers pelted with lemons, a mosque pelted with pigs feet, a mosque shot with an air rifle, a mosque shot with paintballs, an Islamic school attacked with a bottle of acid, a mosque’s sign torn down, and most shockingly, a mosque burned to the ground in Joplin, Missouri.

ZAHRA BILLOO: It’s actually at least nine so far. Since then we’ve seen a Muslim graveyard vandalized, and another bacon related incident.

WES: Before we get into all the details, can you each tell me something about the organizations you represent?

ZAHRA: CAIR is the nation’s largest American Muslims civil rights advocacy group. We have over two dozen offices across the country that provide direct services to individuals and organizations who have been discriminated against because they are Muslim, or mistaken for Muslims.

DAVI BARKER: Muslims 4 Liberty is an organization of American Muslims advancing the cause of liberty from an Islamic perspective by demonstrating not only the compatibility, but the necessity of liberty to the Islamic faith.

WES: Is there any discernible cause for this sudden string of violence?

ZAHRA: We frequently point to the election cycle and increased Islamophobia as the cause of hate motivated attacks on Muslims. It is frightening that the number of attacks continues to increase, now several weeks into this wave. In 2010 we saw a similar wave of attacks and many leaders predicted we’d see another wave as we approached the 2012 election. Unfortunately, many politicians use hate mongering to pander to their lowest common denominator and distract from the real issues. As an example, all of the Illinois attacks came after statements made by Congressman Walsh of Illinois at a town hall meeting. He basically said there were radical Muslims trying to kill Americans in Chicago and in his district. Shortly after that three Islamic institutions were attacked in Illinois.

DAVI: I’m very hesitant to say that rhetoric from bureaucrats is the cause, because they’re just as likely to become enraged by positive statements about Muslims. Politicians co-opt parades, they don’t lead them. It could be that the Sikh Temple shooting triggered this wave. It could also have been triggered by the last 10 days of Ramadan, which are the most important to Muslims. I try to put myself into the mind of one of these anti-Muslim bigots to imagine what might motivate them, and I think it must be very similar to what motivates terrorists. In fact, by any practical definition they are terrorists. It may be violence against property, and not violence against people, but nonetheless it is politically motivated violence. It’s a difference of degrees, not a difference of kind. It seems to me that when they perceive the government failing to deal with this imagined threat from American Muslims they resort to vigilantism and take matters into their own hands. Especially in attacks made on proposed mosque sites, rather than actual mosques. Clearly, when the political means has failed to abort a mosque construction project they resort to intimidation in hopes of scaring Muslims into abandoning the project.

WES: Do they appear to be isolated incidents, or part of an emerging pattern?

ZAHRA: The pattern we’re seeing is a rise of what we call career Islamophobes, or individuals who are making a living perpetrating fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims. There are writers, academics, lawyers and others who have created a cottage industry out of deliberately misinforming people about Islam, inflaming a false fear of American Muslims, and praising these attacks when they occur. One example is Pamela Geller, a blogger who was one of the leading figures behind the Park 51 controversy. She frequently buys anti-Muslim bus ads around the country and sues transit authorities that reject them as hate speech.

DAVI: If by “isolated” you mean “decentralized” or “disorganized” I’d say yes. But it is an emerging pattern, like a spontaneous order. It reminds me in many ways of the copycats we saw after the Columbine High School shooting. Once the media transformed Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris into household names, disaffected youths who felt invisible saw bringing a gun to school as a way to get noticed. Now we see shooters issue a full press package to the media before their attack. It’s the same principle here. As isolated incidents most of these attacks would not even make the local paper, but when a reporter bundles them all together and gives them national coverage, suddenly the barrier to entry is lowered. Now a small attack by a copycat is part of a larger pattern, and gets catapulted into national attention. I’d never suggest the media is complicit, but in a practical sense they may inspire others to try to keep the ball rolling.

WES: There have been some highly publicized struggles in some communities to get mosques built... Could that be related to the intimidation and violence we're seeing?

ZAHRA: Absolutely. All of this is related. Some Muslim leaders say trying to build a mosque is the best test of the religious tolerance of a community. We have seen opposition to new mosque construction all across the country. Isolating Islamophobic remarks from attacks on Islamic institutions would be too simplistic an approach to this growing problem. We often see anti-Muslim activists attempt to use both the legal system and criminal tactics against the same Muslim community.

Since 2010, CAIR’s Islamophobia Department reports that at least 88 American mosques and Islamic centers have been targeted by hate, including 13 acts of violence and 31 acts of vandalism. According to FBI figures, there were 160 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2010, compared to 107 in 2009.

DAVI: I’ll give you an example. Zahra and I attended a Planning Commission Advisory Hearing in San Martin, CA that was convened to invite public comment about a proposed Islamic community center being built there. Speaker after speaker approached the microphone, insisted they had absolutely no problem with Muslims, but that they had concerns about parking, or traffic, or environmental protection, or noise, or whatever. But toward the end a woman took the microphone and basically said Islam was a religion of hate, Muslims were dangerous radicals, and the center would be used to plan jihadist attacks. At this point all those people who insisted they had absolutely no problem with Muslims erupted in thunderous applause. It’s really despicable when you consider that these activists self-describe as conservatives and argue against these same regulations as violations of private property in every other context.

You see it in every movement. There are those who would enforce their will through the political means, and those who would enforce their will directly. The motivation is the same. Only the strategy is different.

WES: Earlier you said the string of incidents could be happening now because we were just in the month of Ramadan?

ZAHRA: We haven’t seen anything to substantiate that, but Muslims are an easier target during Ramadan because so many more of them attend worship services. During the month of Ramadan there may be 10 times as many people offering prayers in a mosque.

DAVI: It’s hard to confirm that without having a suspect identified and questioned, but we frequently see that anti-Muslim websites observe the month of Ramadan with special features. Someone who frequented those websites would be well aware of when the month was, and that mosques would have larger congregations during that time.

WES: How has the violence interfered with or affected religious observances for Muslims?

DAVI: I haven’t observed any real change among worshipers. A few nights I’ve sat around with others who shared the news they read, but the people I spoke with were adamant not to allow themselves to be deterred from their regular practices. Although mosque administrators have hired extra security.

ZAHRA: We did hear from people who explicitly expressed a fear of attending services because of the locations being publicly known; they worried they would be prime targets. The increased violence also led to a heightened demand for security. Whereas during the beginning of the month many individuals didn’t see the need to hire armed security for mosques, towards the end of the month the answer was more clearly and firmly that we did in fact need armed security.

It is disheartening that hate activists who frequently deem themselves patriots are having a chilling effect on the 1st Amendment rights of their fellow Americans.

WES: Have attacks, vandalism, and intimidation spiked just in the last month, or have Muslims seen a notable difference in relations with their communities for the last year after the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque” controversy.

ZAHRA: Overall the number of attacks and level of anti-Muslim sentiment has increased steadily since 9/11 with the most recent spike beginning with the 2008 election and the allegations that President Obama is a secret Muslim. It is our belief that at an interpersonal level the relationships are improving and there is increasing understanding of Islam and American Muslims. At the same time, those who are building bridges of understanding are being continually drowned out by a multi-million dollar industry comprised of individuals who are rallying around and building hate of Islam and Muslims.

WES: What can policymakers do? Are there any public policy reforms that might better protect mosques from this kind of violence and intimidation?

DAVI: I believe it is a dangerous misstep to believe that these kinds of crimes can be resolved by domestic policies because it completely misses the root cause of the ill will, which is foreign policy. They should be prosecuted like any other domestic crime, but the source of hatred toward Muslims is anti-Muslim propaganda, and the motive of anti-Muslim propaganda is to acclimate the population to military conflicts in multiple Muslim countries.

ZAHRA: We would like to see law enforcement training materials purged of anti-Muslim sentiments and an end to racial profiling and targeting of the Muslim community by law enforcement. When the Muslim community doesn’t feel like they can trust the police and FBI that has a real chilling effect on their willingness to report hate incidents, or seek the help of law enforcement when they need it.

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