Eight attacks, 11 days

There's a crime wave targeting houses of worship, most of them Muslim. Is something sinister at work?

Published August 14, 2012 3:58PM (EDT)

The remains of the Islamic Society of Joplin mosque. (Islamic Society of Joplin/Facebook)
The remains of the Islamic Society of Joplin mosque. (Islamic Society of Joplin/Facebook)

[Correction appended]

David Conrad, a resident of Morton Grove, Ill., was likely peeved by the noise from the Muslim Education Center. Conrad’s home is adjacent to the center’s parking lot, and during the holy month of Ramadan, men, women and children pack the mosque on a nightly basis. On Friday, Aug. 10, Conrad allegedly shot a pellet rifle at the mosque wall, while some 500 people were praying inside. The building structure sustained minor damage, but no one was hurt. Was this just the rumbling of a disgruntled neighbor? Maybe.

But given a chain of incidents at mosques across the country over the past two weeks, the Morton Grove shooting doesn't appear to be an isolated event. In the past 10 days, there have been eight cases of vandalism and attacks on houses of worship across the nation, including the deadly shooting spree in a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin on Aug. 5. The other seven incidents were mosque defacements, which have sent a tremor of fear through America’s Muslim community.

While Morton Grove Police have not charged Conrad with a hate crime, the FBI is currently investigating the attack as a hate crime and CAIR has also called on the FBI to investigate the Lombard incident as such. Just 25 miles from Morton Grove, an Islamic school in Lombard was targeted with an even more chilling assault on Sunday night. An assailant flung a homemade “MacGyver bomb” at the building, while worshippers prayed inside. The soda bottle -- filled with household chemicals, including acid -- did not break the window, and again, the worshipers were rattled but unharmed. According to local reports, no one has yet been charged, and the FBI is investigating the matter.

The Illinois attacks come on the heels of an incident in Joplin, Mo., where a mosque was reduced to ashes by a powerful fire last Monday. Although authorities are investigating whether it was an act of arson, a previous fire at the mosque over the July 4 weekend was determined to be arson. Elsewhere, a mosque in North Smithfield, R.I., was vandalized by a man who “head-butted” and pulled down signage. Teens were arrested on hate crime charges for taunting worshipers by throwing eggs and  oranges and shooting bb pellets at a mosque in Hayward, Calif. Vandals defaced the Grand Mosque of Oklahoma City with paintballs, and, in an especially malicious incident, women hurled pig legs at a mosque site in Ontario, Calif., while people were leaving the temporary prayer space.

Is something deeper at work here? Last week, notoriously brusque Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., who represents Lombard, may have helped stoke anti-Muslim hatred with comments at a town hall meeting in Elk Grove. Walsh sowed the seeds of mistrust and suspicion by alleging that “radical Islam” had made a home in the suburbs of Chicago; that  "It’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin. It’s here"; and that radical Muslims are “trying to kill Americans every week.” Walsh’s warnings were met with applause.

Many Muslims in Chicago spoke out to condemn Walsh’s comments. “How long are we going to go pretending like there is no relationship between this acquiescence of hatred and politics and the inclination of violence on the ground?” asked Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Chicago). “You cannot demonize a community and then be surprised when they’re under attack.”

Walsh’s political ploy, fiery as it was, echoes past comments made by the likes of Michele Bachmann and Peter King, elected officials who have long spouted thinly veiled Islamophobia in the public sphere. “We’ve seen in the last few years, particularly after the manufactured controversy over the Park51 Islamic community center, there has been a steady rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in our society. It is promoted and exploited by the cottage industry of Muslim bashers,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director at CAIR. “We are seeing the byproduct of that campaign of Islamophobia in these attacks on mosques and perhaps even on the attack on the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin.”

Some of the attacked Islamic centers are no strangers to hostility. Despite attaining necessary permits, Al- Nur Islamic Center in Ontario faced opposition from locals in its plans to build a permanent structure, much like mosques in Temecula, Calif., and Murfeesboro, Tenn. The pig legs gesture, however, escalated the resistance. “There is a palpable fear and concern amongst many members of the community because people are taking their opposition to the mosque to another level,” said Faisal Qazi, a member of the Al-Nur mosque. “Joplin was attacked before, and the Ontario community’s biggest fear is that if this sort of harassment continues, something worse may happen.”

According to FBI data, hate crimes against Muslims might be rising. The rate of anti-Muslim crimes fell from nearly 500 in 2001 to 107 in 2009. But in 2010 (the latest year for which the FBI has data) the total  number of hate crimes jumped 50 percent to 160. In light of these recent episodes, CAIR has issued a safety advisory for Islamic centers that includes calling for mosque leadership to remain extra vigilant and requesting that local law enforcement increase patrol at mosques to ensure the safety of the worshipers.

Even so, a cloud of trepidation and panic has settled upon many Muslim communities. Mosque leaders around the country are gearing up for the 27th night of Ramadan tonight, the holiest night of the month, when Muslims swarm mosques in record numbers. Judge Marguerite Quinn of Morton Grove, understanding the gravity of this time of year for Muslims, told David Conrad, "This is the holy month of Ramadan, and it will not be because of your actions that these services be disturbed.”

Correction: The article originally misattributed a quote to Rep. Joe Walsh: "Islam is not the peaceful, loving religion we hear about." The mistaken quote has been removed and replaced with a correct quote: "It’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin. It’s here"

By Uzma Kolsy

Uzma Kolsy is an activist and freelance writer based in Southern California. She is the former Managing Editor of InFocus News, the largest newspaper in California serving the Muslim American community.

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Crime Islam Islamophobia Joplin Oak Creek Shooting