BALLWIN, Mo. (AP) – The burned-out mosque in Joplin will be rebuilt, but the fires there are emblematic of hatred that remains all too common against Muslims around the U.S., St. Louis-area religious and civil rights leaders said Wednesday.
Representatives of Muslim and interfaith groups were among those who spoke at a news conference outside a mosque in St. Louis County to show their support for Muslims in Joplin. An arson fire on July 4 damaged the Islamic Society of Joplin, and another blaze in the early hours of Aug. 6 destroyed it. No one was hurt in either blaze.
The August fire has not officially been declared arson but has been labeled as suspicious. The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating.
Ghazala Hayat of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis noted the sad contrast of a potential hate crime in a city where compassion was so evident after the May 22, 2011, tornado that killed 161 people and destroyed a large section of the community. The now-destroyed mosque served as a shelter and staging area for volunteers who came to help after the twister.
“Joplin is a city where last year every faith, every community came together,” Hayat said. “This year, what we saw was hatred.”
She and other speakers blamed bigotry that they say is escalated at times by anti-Muslim political rhetoric.
Brenda Jones, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, cited a litany of recent attacks on Muslims including the placement of pig legs at a mosque site in California, pellets fired from an air rifle at a mosque in Illinois. Even in St. Louis over the past year, a message sign at a mosque was defaced, Jones said, and a Muslim woman was denied service at a store because she refused to remove her veil.
“I am here to declare that there are no second-class citizens in America, and it is not open season on Muslims in America,” Jones said.
The anti-Muslim actions have been offset in part by acts of kindness. Faizan Syed of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said more than $400,000 has been donated toward rebuilding the Joplin mosque evidence of backing from around the nation and the world. Many non-Muslims in Joplin have stepped up to show support.
But there are others who continue to express hatred, he said. Even as families were sifting through the rubble of their burned-out mosque, people in pickup trucks drove by and yelled expletives at them, he said.
The FBI has released video of a suspect caught on surveillance video in the July 4 blaze. Reward money has been offered in both fires $15,000 combined from the FBI and ATF, and $10,000 from CAIR, but no arrests have been made.
It wasn’t clear when a determination will be made on whether the Aug. 6 fire was arson.
“We have significant resources working the investigation,” FBI spokeswoman Bridgett Patton said.
About 50 families belong to the Islamic Society of Joplin, which opened in 2007 as a mosque and community center.
Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg, president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, said the burning of a mosque is a crime against all Americans, not just Muslims.
“We are all Americans,” she said. “We are all here in this melting pot that was founded on the basis of freedom of religion.”