Houston, Texas fire officials said that an accelerant was used to burn down an Islamic community and education center early Friday morning, an act of arson that is putting some Muslim groups on edge, in light of the grisly shooting deaths against three Muslims in North Carolina earlier this week.
In a preliminary investigation, officials said they believe that the fire started in the back of one of three buildings at the Quba Islamic Institute around 5 a.m. Ahsan Zahid, the son of the center’s imam said in a Facebook post that the building contained “our materials, our computers, our monitors, our lights, and everything we were going to use for our renovation project, but the fire was so destructive it completely destroyed everything.”
Mustafaa Carroll, executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) Houston chapter, told ThinkProgress on Saturday, that the two other buildings sustained minor damage. Carroll said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating after they found that the fire was started with an accelerant, but authorities couldn’t yet definitively say that the fire was a hate crime. Carroll said, “We try to be prudent about what we say. [The fire] definitely was started intentionally so we are waiting for the FBI’s investigation to see if they can give us any more insight into what happened.”
The incident has prompted “heightened awareness” among the Muslim community in Houston, Carroll admitted. His organization has begun preparing safety kits that include information to teach people “how to protect their mosque, be vigilant about security, not to walk alone.”
Suspected arsonists have targeted Houston-area Islamic centers and mosques before, a city home to about 60,000 Muslims and over 41 mosques and storefront religious centers. The American Civil Liberties Union found that there were at least five anti-mosque incidents in Texas between 2006 and 2010. In 2010, members of the Dar El-Eman Islamic Education Center in Arlington, Texas, found “graffiti depicting Uncle Sam and Allah in a sexual position spray-painted in the parking lot,” while another Islamic center in nearby Clear Lake, Texas suffered two fires in the same week. And in 2011, a Houston mosque was deliberately set on fire.
The arson came just days after a gunman shot to death three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, an event that has sparked outcries of anti-Muslim sentiment. And just two weeks ago, Texas state Rep. Molly White (R) wrote a Facebook post telling Muslims to “renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws.”
“We’re living in a time where this happens and this is not new for us,” Carroll explained. “Any time people make blanket statements about Muslims and equate all of us with the actions of a few, it gives tacit approval to [some] people in our society to mistreat Muslims. It’s sort of justification when you hear all the negative press … ultimately those comments are going to manifest itself in some type of negative behavior. The words always come first and we wish that people would watch their words and not be so quick to judge.”
As with the Chapel Hill shootings, Muslim leaders in the community are continuing to respond with compassion. “The majority of Americans are fair-minded so they have an affinity to come out in times like these,” Carroll said. “We have a lot of community members — not just those of Muslim faith — who have spoken up and we’re so thankful of them.”
Zahid said, “We want to make sure that we don’t point the fingers at anyone, blame anyone, or spread hate towards any group whether they be Muslim, whether they be non-Muslim, whatever they are. We want to love everyone. We want to help everyone get better through this. Inshallah.”
Further citing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Zahid wrote in a Facebook post, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”