As anti-Islam incidents rise, Muslim groups take steps to prevent arson

Five American mosques have burned so far this year.

Flames engulf the Islamic Center of the Eastside in Bellevue, Washington in January. CREDIT: Bellevue, Wash., Fire Department via AP
Flames engulf the Islamic Center of the Eastside in Bellevue, Washington in January. CREDIT: Bellevue, Wash., Fire Department via AP

As millions of Muslim Americans prepare for the holy Islamic celebration of Ramadan beginning later this month, mosque leaders are also readying for something else: the possibility of arson attacks.

On Wednesday, Muslim civil rights group Muslim Advocates sent a bulletin to mosques around the country detailing ways to protect their worship spaces from arson. It instructs leaders to take various practical precautions, such as installing smoke alarms and illuminating entrances, as well as forging relationships with neighbors and local police.

“You have the right to worship and be protected by police and fire departments,” it reads.

The notice coincides with Arson Awareness Week, a broader project sponsored by federal agencies such as FEMA, but is meant to address a specific — and growing — danger of fires facing the American Muslim community. Since the beginning of 2017, five different mosques in Texas, Washington, Florida, and Michigan have all caught aflame, and many of the alleged perpetrators have been charged with arson.

“You have the right to worship and be protected by police and fire departments.”

Most of the incidents are still under investigation, and there are disputes over whether some constitute hate crimes. Nevertheless, Muslim Advocates notes that the steady increase in Islamophobic rhetoric could inspire other potential vandals.

“In just 2017, there have been five arsons or suspected arsons at American mosques,” their notice reads. “Muslim Advocates believes that heated political rhetoric and anti-Muslim policies have emboldened potential vandals. Anecdotal evidence from previous years suggests that the Ramadan may see increased vandalism against mosques in 2017 as well.”

The alert comes as Muslim Americans grapple with a surge of anti-Islam incidents across the country, many targeting mosques. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), another Muslim civil rights group, published a report earlier this month that counted 2,213 anti-Muslim bias incidents in the United States during 2016 — a 57 percent increase from the year before. ThinkProgress also tracked 111 anti-Islam incidents from November 2015 to November 2016 using a different methodology, and recently analyzed another 31 attacks that occurred in the time period between Trump’s election and February 10 of this year.

In addition to arson, recent attacks on Muslim houses of worship include bomb threats, vandalism, and property destruction, among others.