Five Years Later: Of Faith & Fire

The beginning of July is always a busy time in Bloomington, but during my time here it’s also been a sadly violent time of year. Five years ago in July, someone threw a makeshift firebomb through the window of the Islamic Center here in Bloomington. (The mosque is located only a block or so away from where Won-Joon Yoon was murdered by Benjamin Smith during his racially-motivated killing spree in July of 1999.) The local media did some good initial reporting on the story, and the story was picked up nationally.

But five years later, those responsible for the cowardly action have not been caught.

And five years later, the leaders of the Republican party are openly stoking religious fears, calling on their acolytes to “refudiate” the building of a new community center in Manhattan because it would include a mosque.

Five years later, the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee thinks it’s a winning campaign strategy to oppose a new, larger Islamic center in Murfreesboro, and to dismiss Islam as a “cult” that might not deserve the same protections under the First Amendment.

Five years later, some Christians are making thinly-veiled threats about a proposed mosque in Southern California.

Five years later, Muslims across America are finding it harder to find a place to worship.

But in every one of these communities, progressive-minded people of all faiths are working to make things better. They’re supporting the building of the mosque in Murfreesboro. They’re supporting the Cordoba Center in Manhattan. They’re making their voices heard, and they can make an impact.

When I was looking into the mosque fire, I was able to find an angle that had gone unmentioned – as I wrote for the local publication CultureWeek:

In the early morning hours of Saturday, July 9th, a member of the Islamic Center of Bloomington was walking through the facility, carrying a jug of water for wudu — the ritual washing Muslims perform before prayer.

Around 2 a.m., the man — who asked to remain anonymous — discovered and extinguished a small fire in the kitchen with the jug of water. Two hours later, other members of the mosque arriving for dawn prayer found a burned copy of the Quran outside the building. They called the police and notified the leadership of the center. Within hours, investigators determined that someone had broken a window and set the fire deliberately. The FBI is investigating the incident as a hate crime.

Just two days earlier, the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a security warning in response to threats it received after the London bombings. The mosque had been the target of vandalism in the past, and some concerns were voiced, according to Nathan Ainslie, President of the Islamic Center’s executive committee. He said that adding extra lighting around the center had been discussed for several months, but no action had been taken.

By noon on Saturday, members of the mosque were ready for action. They began to discuss a response to the attack.

“We came to the conclusion as a community that the best response would be to not respond with fear or anger, but to invite everyone in,” explained Ainslie.

Other Bloomington faith communities felt the need to respond as well. Reverend Bill Breeden of the Unitarian Universalist Church heard about the event early Saturday morning, and immediately made plans to have lunch with members of the mosque the next day. He asked if his congregation could walk to the Islamic Center the next week to display their solidarity with the members of the mosque.

With Breeden’s support, the walk and open house at the Islamic Center drew more than three hundred people on a very hot summer day.

Ainslie viewed the response as a success. “It showed that we aren’t mistaken in our belief that we’re part of the Bloomington community.”

“It was absolutely a success,” agreed Breeden, who attributed the high turnout to the mosque community’s display of hospitality.

The development of interfaith relationships, according to Rabbi Mira Wasserman of Congregation Beth Shalom, was an integral part of the event.

When arsonists attacked Beth Shalom in 1983, the response of neighboring faith communities helped assure the Jewish community that they were not alone. An informal network of connections helped the congregation to stay open as they were rebuilding. Since that time, formal connections have developed in addition to the friendships that seem to naturally occur among faith leaders.

Rabbi Wasserman suggested that the response to the attack on the Islamic Center reflects the maturing of the community and of the relationships between faith groups. She said that interfaith dialogue is supported by informal friendships, but sometimes needs some structured help to keep it alive. Now, she said, a new group has come along to help.

About six months ago, Bloomington Hospital chaplain Reverend John VanderZee initiated a movement to formalize and cement those relations, and Monroe County Religious Leaders was founded. Members meet once a month to discuss key issues affecting the community.

“Hopefully now we have the framework for cooperation,” Rabbi Wasserman said.

Reverend Breeden spread the word of the response to the attacks on the Islamic Center through Monroe County Religious Leaders, whose members are in constant contact. Many faith leaders in Bloomington are realistically hopeful for the future of interfaith relations, bolstered by the generous display of support for the mosque.

“[The attackers] obviously didn’t realize that we aren’t isolated, and that we aren’t easily frightened off,” said Ainslie, adding that interfaith events can help foster understanding and form friendships. “Forming the human connections is vital toward responding to those points of view.”

Reverend Breeden offered a simpler reason why interfaith cooperation is the solution — “Love is stronger than hate.”

I pray that over the next five years, Reverend Breeden will be proven correct.