x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Mosque fire prompts community to unite behind Muslims

Over a 10-day period during Ramadan, nine mosques were attacked or vandalised across America.

A firefighter works to extinguish the smouldering remains of the Joplin mosque. The August 6 fire was the second to hit the Islamic centre in little more than a month.
A firefighter works to extinguish the smouldering remains of the Joplin mosque. The August 6 fire was the second to hit the Islamic centre in little more than a month.

JOPLIN, MISSOURI // Asadullah Ahmed stared down at the charred corner of a red prayer rug. It conjured memories of iftar dinners and weekend Quran lessons once held in the mosque now in ruins at his feet, its metal rods poking through black wooden embers and scattered bricks.

"My patients told me the address was bad luck," the middle-aged psychiatrist said ruefully of the intersection on 13th Street and Black Cat Road.

But bad luck did not set the mosque on fire. Over a 10-day period during Ramadan, nine mosques were attacked or vandalised across the country. The mosque in Joplin had been set on fire only weeks earlier, its security cameras capturing the grainy image of an arsonist.

Before that, the mosque's wooden sign had been burnt to ashes. The Islamic Society of Joplin put up a concrete replacement that could not be burnt, so someone sprayed it with buckshot from a shotgun.

So with fear in the air on the night of August 6, after taraweeh prayers, a small group of congregants spoke about the white supremacist gunman who had murdered 12 Sikhs at a gurdwara that day in Wisconsin.

After the first arson, they had implored the police and FBI to provide more security, but they did not see any. It was not a total shock, then, when members of the town's tight-knit Muslim community began receiving calls at 3.30am that a fire had, this time, destroyed the mosque.

Residents like to call this part of south-west Missouri the "buckle" of the United States's bible belt and at the time of the 2010 midterm elections, the political atmosphere had become poisonous for Muslims in communities such as Joplin across the midwest and south. The right-wing Tea Party movement was at its most virulent, with racist signs at rallies proclaiming the president, Barack Obama, to be, among many things, an African crypto-Muslim communist.

A wave of support brought Tea Party candidates to office across Missouri and an anti-Sharia bill was quickly proposed but then defeated for two straight years in the state legislature.

Joplin, with a population of about 50,000, has a small Muslim community of about 30 families, mostly Pakistani doctors who receive visa waivers if they work in poor communities. It also has UAE ties - the country gave a US$5 million (Dh18.3m) grant towards building a children's wing at a hospital after a tornado last year destroyed much of the city's infrastructure.

The Muslims in Joplin think the cumulative effect of the Islamophobic political rhetoric lit the match, so to speak, that burnt down their mosque.

"Most of us were talking about leaving Joplin," Mr Ahmed said.

But then something unexpected happened. A coalition of religious groups, from liberal Jews to fundamentalist evangelicals, took out an advert in the city newspaper that read, in part: "We believe that 'Love they Neighbour' has no restrictions." People that many of the Muslim families had never talked to reassured them and even told them to rebuild the mosque. One church put an Eid greeting on the side of their building, "May Allah bless you", while another congregation brought a basket of supportive letters over Eid.

"It brought the community closer," said Sara Bokhari, a housewife originally from Lahore, Pakistan. "Before the fire people were not that friendly but afterward they were ashamed and started making an effort to know us."

Mr Ahmed added: "At one level, [the fire] was a blessing in disguise."

Ashley Carter, 20, a college student who had never met a Muslim, organised a rally in support of the town's Muslims that drew nearly 1,000 people.

"I didn't even know there was a Muslim community," Ms Carter said. "There was a fear of the unknown that built hatred but when I heard about the fire I thought, 'how would Jesus respond?'."

Reticent Muslims also attended the rally, which marked the beginning of more proactive engagement with the community of Joplin.

Hina Qidwai, who said the fire reminded her of her childhood in India and the sacking of the Babri Masjid, spoke at the rally.

"I really thought I would be shot by a sniper," she said. "But they made us very comfortable and I was so moved that one girl accomplished all of this."

Ms Carter and Ms Qidwai, along with other Muslim and Christian women, became friends, bonding over their shared conservative religious values, and now hold regular pot-luck meals.

While they unanimously speak of the support most Jopliners have given, Muslims also talk of a fear that does not fade away.

Hameed Ahmed, 36, a doctor at a nearby hospital, came to the US from Swat Valley in north-west Pakistan because the Taliban had killed members of his family for disobeying their religious edicts.

"There was no way to survive there," he said. "I came here and saw that they had turned a church into a mosque. I thought, 'this is a tolerant society'."

But after the attacks on the mosque, he now plans to leave the US. "Islamophobia is a national problem and there is a fear that it may get worse," he said.

Mr Ahmed said harassment still occurs. Days after the fire, he was showing David Myers, appointed by Mr Obama to the department of homeland security, the burnt mosque when a lorry driver slowed down and yelled a racial slur.

The most lasting effects of the arson may be on Muslim children. Humza Ali, 10, said teenagers yelled at his father as they were going to pray at a temporary space in a strip mall. "They asked, 'are you Al Qaeda?'," Humza said. "Sometimes I think they might try to shoot us, it keeps going through my mind but I don't really talk to anyone about it."

The new relationship between Joplin's Muslims and its white Christian majority seems to have done little to alter either group's political moorings. The Tea Party congressman representing Joplin is expected to win and anti-Obama political slogans are ubiquitous.

This is the first election in which Muslims constitute a swing vote in some crucial states. All of the Muslims interviewed in Joplin support Mr Obama, even though recent polling has found that nationally Muslims are less enthusiastic about him.

Whoever wins the election, the Islamic Society of Joplin plans to rebuild their mosque at a new location, even though they still need to raise nearly US$1 million (Dh3.67m) before they can begin construction. They expect the Muslim community here to grow quickly in the coming years and so hope to build it big, with one caveat.

"We won't have a minaret," Mr Ahmed said. "They will say 'look, the Muslims are building missiles'."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae