x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 16 December 2017

Fire-ravaged mosque in US midwest receives flood of support

A suspicious fire destroyed a mosque and devastated a small-town US Muslim community. But they never expected such an outpouring of support from around the world.

Standing in the rubble, Dr. Asadullah Ahmed looks over the remains of the burned out debris of what was once the only mosque building in Joplin, Missouri. The building was destroyed by arson last month.
Standing in the rubble, Dr. Asadullah Ahmed looks over the remains of the burned out debris of what was once the only mosque building in Joplin, Missouri. The building was destroyed by arson last month.

The calls started coming at 3.50am with a heartsickening urgency that had become all too familiar.

"It makes me cry thinking of it now," whispers Kimberly Kester, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Society of Joplin in Missouri, deep in the American heartlands.

That night on August 6, there was a problem at the community mosque, and as many helping hands were needed as possible. One by one they began arriving, clothes thrown on in haste and rubbing sleepy eyes in disbelief.

For as the first watery rays of dawn light began creeping across the Missouri night sky, there was a far brighter, more unnatural light on the horizon. Blazing with a fierce luminosity, it confirmed their worst fears: their mosque was on fire. It wasn't the first time - arsonists had tried in the past but only damaged the roof - but this fire would eventually burn the structure to the ground, depriving a small community of Muslims here a place to worship.

"I got there at 6.30am and it was smouldering," says Kester. "There was still smoke coming off the charred pieces. It smelled like a giant barbecue - I could not believe all the brick walls had crumbled to the ground."

And if the story had ended there, the suspected arson attack at the Joplin mosque would have simply joined the litany of statistics of race hate crimes and actions across the US, culminating in the American-made anti-Islam video that recently sparked off deadly riots in various Muslim countries around the world.

Instead, what has happened since in Joplin is nothing short of extraordinary. Backed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) and an advisor to Hillary Clinton, mosque leaders launched a campaign on the website Indiegogo to raise the US$250,000 (Dh918,275) needed to rebuild their mosque, urging donors to dig deep in the spirit of the past Ramadan and help them reach their target by today.

With the Joplin community made up of no more than 50 Muslim families - numbering 150 people in total - they expected donations to trickle in at a slow pace.

But as they watched in astonishment, the funds poured in, not just from Missouri and from within the US but from 23 different countries, from Pakistan to Egypt, and from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Within 48 hours, they had reached their target. As it stood yesterday, they had reached $409,000.

More than 3,620 people have contributed to the appeal to date and more than 400 of those have donated a minimum of $250 each.

"It really did surprise us and continues to do so," says Kester. "I had no idea there would be this outpouring.

"Donations have been very much equal between Muslims and non-Muslims and they are coming from everywhere. The first people to respond were the local churches. We have close ties with the churches and synagogues in the area and people from many different congregations wanted to know how to help.

"I guess they wanted to show that, while there were these horrific images of hate and violence in the news, that is not what America is about."

Within hours of the blaze, members of the Muslim community were being stopped in the street by neighbours who thrust cash at them in a bid to help. So the mosque's committee decided to launch an official appeal.

The Joplin mosque had special significance for Kester: it was the same place the assistant university professor from Wyandotte, Oklahoma, had converted from Christianity to Islam and taken her shahadah, or vow of belief, three years earlier. So she set up a Facebook campaign page to garner support for rebuilding. But it was not until an offer of help came in from Washington-based Shahed Amanullah that the appeal became an international clarion call.

Amanullah is a senior advisor for technology to the US Department of State, working on ways to encourage the government to interact with young Muslims via the office of Farah Pandith, the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, who reports directly to Hillary Clinton.

The founder of several successful websites, including Halalfire.com, a global network for Muslim communities with 12 million users, and Zabihah.com, the world's largest guide to halal restaurants, Amanullah had experience in using social media to spread messages quickly and efficiently.

His first tweet about the Joplin fire was read by 250,000 people and, while he says he is volunteering in a personal capacity, he admits his connections in Capitol Hill have certainly done the campaign no harm.

"I am just a concerned citizen who decided to help," he says. "I wanted to rewrite the story, not as one of tragedy but of rebuilding. I felt the indiegogo website was the most immediate way for people to respond and that instead of anger, we could build the determination for something to rise from the ashes."

Cair International also threw its weight behind the appeal with a plea to members across the country to support their fellow Muslims in their hour of need, particularly as they were left bereft during the holy month of Ramadan.

Faizan Syed, executive director of Cair-St Louis, says the appeal was a runaway success because Muslims around the world were focused on charitable acts, but adds the community in Joplin still faces plenty of challenges. "The mosque is in a very rural, isolated area of Jasper County and surrounded by farmland and mobile homes," he says. "When you get into these rural areas, there are radicalised far-right extreme groups whose purpose is to demonise Muslims. A lot of it is to do with ignorance."

The Muslim community in Joplin is relatively new, largely made up of first-generation immigrants, most hailing from Pakistan and India. Others come from Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Somalia.

While the first arrival was Palestinian Ahmed Kanan 57 years ago, most Muslims have settled there in the last two decades. There is a disproportionate number of doctors - about 18 among the 50 families forming the tight-knit community - while the rest hold other professional posts ranging from engineers to IT consultants. The mosque was their only place of worship within 50 miles.

"Most of the congregation are highly educated, professional and moved here with young families," says Karachi-born Asadullah Ahmed, 55, a paediatric psychiatrist at Freeman Health System, Missouri.

"Most of us have very good relationships with our patients, who were all devastated and disturbed by this incident."

It has not been difficult integrating, he says, adding: "Overall, Joplin has been very accommodating and supportive. No one supports the burning of any house of worship."

He had opened his basement to worshippers left without a place to pray, but now they rent a small space for a temporary prayer hall until the new mosque is completed. He had also helped organise an Eid lunch for 250 city officials as well as Christian and Jewish community leaders to thank them for their support.

Kester says the impact of the fire hit all sectors of the community as "almost everyone in Joplin knows one of these doctors."

But there was another reason for the community to rally together. They had done so once before when a tornado ripped through the heart of the city in May last year, killing 161 people, injuring more than 1,000 and displacing another 9,500.

A third of Joplin, amounting to thousands of homes, cars and businesses, was flattened in the tornado's 35-kilometre-long wake. The red brick mosque, converted in 2007 from a former church, was turned into a relief centre dishing out supplies, food and building equipment. It even housed volunteers for up to two months after the devastation.

Ahmed says: "We are peace-loving, fundraise for American charities and are as much a part of the American fabric as anyone else. We want to work on this ignorance so people can find out about Islam."

The Reverend Jill Michel, of South Joplin Christian Church, a key organiser of inter-faith events started after the tornado, stepped in after the fire to help host an iftar dinner for 300 at St Peter's Episcopal Church, even finding caterers to supply halal meat.

"It was a wonderful evening where Muslims, Christians and Jews ate together," she says. "Although Joplin is overwhelmingly Christian and has had little inter-faith activity…we are looking at ways to increase understanding between the faiths."

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg, president of St Louis Rabbinical Association, adds: "We are all Americans in this melting pot founded on the basis of freedom of religion."

As for the fire, police investigations have so far proven inconclusive. Nor has anyone been caught for the earlier July 4 arson when a white man, his face clearly contorted with hate, was captured on the mosque's security cameras (destroyed in the second fire), hurling a Molotov cocktail at the site at around the same time in the morning.

Despite a joint $25,000 reward offered by the FBI and Cair International, no one has identified the culprit. While religious leaders in Joplin are keen to emphasise mutual understanding, there is clearly still a long way to go.

Meanwhile, with the money raised combined with an insurance payout of an estimated $600,000, mosque officials are drawing up plans for a new, bigger, purpose-built $1 million mosque - one facing Mecca and with plenty of room for prayer halls, teaching facilities, expansive bathrooms, sports facilities and, crucially, enhanced security with a gated compound, motion sensors and CCTV.

It may be a year away but the message is clear to those responsible for the fire. For just as Missouri is a political bellwether state - correctly voting for the incoming president in all but two elections since 1904 - its ability to rebuild and forge community bonds in the wake of disaster is surely indicative of the compassion of a nation.

As Amanullah says, the goal is to "make sure the person who burned down the mosque see it is going to be built bigger and better. And that one act of hate will be countered by thousands of acts of love, even in the heartlands of America."