The Muslim community in Escondido, California, gathered a week ago for an interfaith prayer vigil, insisting that a distance of nearly 7,000 miles did not ease the pain they felt for the 50 victims of a pair of mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.
They assembled again on Sunday evening, uttering prayers that echoed like a grim refrain. This time, they turned their attention to one of their own mosques, whose walls had been blackened in a possible act of arson announcing its intentions with graffiti citing the March 15 attack in New Zealand.
With rapid velocity, the violence visited on the Pacific island nation appears to have traversed the globe, choosing as one of its first American targets an unassuming, beige-colored place of Islamic worship, flanked by palm trees.
“I never could have expected that this would happen here, two blocks from my house,” Yusef Miller, the point person for interfaith initiatives and a board member at the Islamic Society of North County, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The connection was chilling. It was a clear homage to what happened in New Zealand.”
In the wee hours of Sunday, seven people were inside the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido, about 30 miles north of downtown San Diego, when someone outside tried to set the building ablaze, according to city police. No one was injured in the fire, which marred the exterior of the mosque. The worshipers who had been inside were able to snuff out the flames with a fire extinguisher.
A 911 call brought police and fire services to the scene, as authorities judged the incident to be an act of arson. An accelerant had been used to stimulate the flames, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. Police said they were investigating the act as a hate crime.
“Graffiti left behind by the suspect made reference to the shooting incident in New Zealand,” Chris Lick, a police spokesman, said in a news release.
The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting city and county officials with their probe. No suspects have been identified.
Authorities didn’t shed further light on the words spray-painted on the building’s exterior. Muslim leaders said they remained in the dark about the precise language, as police feared that disclosing the exact message might jeopardize an ongoing investigation.
“I gather that it referred to New Zealand and to the shooter specifically,” Miller said.
By the time he took his 11- and 12-year-old sons to see the damage for themselves, the language had been removed.
“I wanted to give them a dose of reality,” said Miller, 50.
The interfaith prayer and security vigil that took place on Sunday evening drew several hundred people to a street corner near the mosque.
People of “every faith” were present, said Nehal Hasan, a member of the local Muslim community who came to the United States from India in 2007. Muslims were San Diego County’s fastest-growing religious demographic between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. In the northern part of the county, where Escondido is located, three mosques serve the Muslim population, which members say is less active than in bigger cities.
“My perception is that this country is the most beautiful place on the Earth,” Hasan said. “If people commit these kinds of acts, we have to show that something good can come of it.”
Still, he sees cause for alarm in the nation that welcomed him more than a decade ago. Hate crimes targeting American Muslims rose by 15 percent in 2017, according to a report released last year by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The uptick in anti-Muslim incidents in 2017 came after the previous year had already earned disrepute as “the worst year on record for incidents in which mosques were targets of bias,” according to CAIR. The organization documented 139 instances of damage, destruction or vandalism in 2016 – the highest figure since it began keeping count in 2009. Mosques from Austin to Bellevue, Wash., came under attack.
Miller said he expected anti-Muslim animus to flare following the attack in New Zealand, but not in his own backyard – “some larger city, maybe, with a larger and more active Muslim population.” He said the fire in Escondido was the first attack to come to his attention in the U.S. that expressly drew from the events in Christchurch.
In Britain, watchdog organizations have already observed a sharp rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes since the attack, with numerous episodes referring specifically to the rampage that left dozens dead when Friday prayers turned into a site of slaughter. According to the Guardian, a monitoring group called Tell Mama became aware of 95 incidents between March 15 and March 21. Of those cases, 85 included explicit references to the Christchurch massacre, the deadliest in New Zealand’s modern history. In one especially violent outburst, which police said they were investigating as far-right terrorism, a 50-year-old man was charged with attempted murder after shouting racist comments as he stabbed a teenager on the day after the mass shooting.
It’s clear from the public platform sought by the alleged perpetrator that he intended to inspire copycat attacks – a point acknowledged by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when she promised to deny him “notoriety” by refusing even to speak his name.
The acts apparently influenced by the Christchurch shooter’s crusade may not be as deadly as those he is accused of carrying out on March 15; the methods might not be as technologically advanced. But the oxygen he breathed into anti-Muslim hatred has already been felt across continents, prompting new vows from religious minorities that they will not be cowed.
“The purpose of this kind of act is to create fear so you don’t go to your place of worship,” Mohammad Molla, a member of the Escondido-based Islamic Society of North County, said in an interview with The Post.
He confessed to having macabre thoughts when he picked up his 7-year-old daughter from school on Friday and brought her to mosque for afternoon prayers, glancing anxiously at their possible escape routes.
“But you can’t live in fear,” he said. “If you do, the terrorists have won.”