Anti-Muslim and anti-Arab acts in the streets, schools and homes of America have shocked many in recent weeks. In the span of a few short days, a fire devastated a mosque in California and a political controversy set back an Arabic school set to open this fall in New York.
The mosque fire, if intentional, was violent and illegal. Such a crime has its roots in suspicion and ignorance —which also inspired the public outcry against the Khalil Gibran International Academy in New York.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), San Francisco Bay Area chapter called a news conference to announce that a fire broke out early last Sunday at the Islamic Center of the East Bay in Antioch, Calif. Local fire officials are investigating the fire as an act of arson, the criminal use of fire to destroy property. The fire, which caused more than $200,000 worth of damage, came days after a break-in at the center.
This would not be the first attack on the center. It was a target for vandals several times before. Even worse, last January someone fired 7 shots at its windows and walls. Afterwards, Mohammad Chaudhry, president of the center, said “This incident is very dire. People are scared. I’m not sure what to do.”
Though there was not evidence it was a hate crime, a crime motivated by hatred for another people, it certainly frightened local Muslims. It is one reason why many suspect the fire was no mere coincidence or accident.
Nationally, Muslim organizations are taking notice of what appears to be a surge in violence directed towards Muslims and their institutions. The Tampa office of the CAIR-Tampa reported that arsonists torched a Muslim family’s home there last month.
Earlier this month, unknown culprits threw an “acid bomb” near worshipers outside a Glendale, Arizona mosque. CAIR is calling on local and national law enforcement authorities to investigate the incident as a possible bias-motivated attack. No one was injured in the attack.
In New York, public hysteria and an aggressive campaign against a planned Arabic school in Brooklyn pressured the principal to quit. The soon-to-be opened Arabic school faced many hurdles before Debbie Almontaser, a veteran public school teacher, resigned due to public pressure.
Though she was targeted for responding to a controversy around t-shirts produced by another organization, there have been many attempts to prevent the school from opening its doors.
New York’s right-wing media and anti-Arab activists had a field day after Ms. Almontaser failed to condemn a t-shirt with the phrase “Intifada NYC.” The shirts are put out by a group called Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, which has no formal relationship with the school.
Ms. Almontaser, who came to the U.S. from Yemen when she was three years old, helped design and plan the Khalil Gibran school. With instruction based on a standard curriculum in Arabic each day and a focus on international studies, it was sure to invite the ire of many fearing anything Arab or Muslim in the United States.
Just finding a place to house the school, which is supported by the city government, was politically contentious. Its first proposed location was in a building housing another school, a common practice for New York charter schools. Parents at the other school opposed the move, claiming there was insufficient room for the two schools, according to the “New York Times.”
When the school was given another location in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, parents there organized against the school as well. They did not welcome the Khalil Gibran Academy.
Despite the fear of an academy designed to be a bridge between different cultures, it is due to open next month as planned. Of the 44 enrolled sixth-grade students, most of them identify as black.Only six of the totals are Arabic-speaking.
The attacks on mosques and Muslims, and the fear-mongering against Arabs, are particularly alarming because they target the banal, the everyday places of just being – the place of prayer, the home, and the school. This is too easy to interpret as opposition to normalcy for people as deserving of security as anyone else. It is more likely the result of fear and ignorance.
One lesson is clear. Arab and Muslim institutions will prevail against such hate as long as the community stands together to support them. The planned academy and the mosques would not survive without local support.
Will Youmans is a writer for The Arab American News.