Commentary: A mosque was intentionally set on fire in the U.S. Why didn’t anyone hear about it?


Less than a month after the inauguration of President Donald Trump and just a few hours after the first Muslim ban was issued, a mosque in Victoria, Texas, was set on fire – to be followed by several mosque arsons over the ensuing years. The media barely covered it, but the entire community in Victoria felt it. Members of a neighboring Jewish congregation walked into the home of one of the co-founders of the mosque and handed him the keys to their synagogue to serve as a temporary place of prayer. Four Christian churches followed, also offering their space. But the events received only minimal coverage in major media.

Muslims pray Friday at Dulles High School in Sugar Land, Texas, on Eid al-Adha, one of Islam’s holiest days. Must credit: Photo by John Taggart for The Washington Post

Then again, most mosque arsons go almost completely ignored. On Sunday, just a week into the holy month of Ramadan, the Diyanet Mosque of New Haven, Connecticut, was devastated by a two-alarm blaze. While the president of the mosque was immediately contacted by churches in meaningful solidarity that offered their facilities as temporary replacements, it is hard to find any significant coverage of the fire in large media outlets.

Certainly, there are news stories; you can find them if you use the right search terms. But these events have not received the kind of general, sustained, human coverage that is often accorded to other acts of terrorism. By no means is this sort of disparate reporting limited to attacks on Muslims. Compare the coverage of the intentional burning of three black churches in Louisiana with the accidental fire that claimed much of the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. And consider how much more you heard about Notre Dame than about the terrorist attacks against churches and tourist hotels six days later – on Easter – in Sri Lanka, though those attacks cost some 250 lives.

But when it comes to mosques, it’s hard to ignore the overall climate of Islamophobia and how it might contribute to these attacks and the lack of coverage after them. Muslims are overreported as terrorists, yet underreported as victims of terror.

According to researchers at Georgia State University and the University of Alabama, terrorist attacks by Muslims receive an average of 357 percent more media coverage than those by other groups. And their places of worship are even more meaningless than their lives.

Thankfully, mosque arsons in the United States have not resulted in deaths, but they’ve certainly taken some life out of large vibrant communities. And they have created a climate of fear: In August 2017, the imam’s office in a mosque in Minnesota was firebombed during the morning prayers. The imam and more than a dozen congregants were in the prayer hall, which was spared. But surveillance videos of the hall outside the imam’s office show the fear of young Muslims who know how vulnerable their lives and places of worship have become.

Since March, when a terrorist live-streamed attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, to be witnessed by their brethren across the world, Muslims have been on high alert. Many mosques have increased security, but breaches have left many Muslims extraordinarily fearful. Shortly after the start of Ramadan this month, video of a suspicious man entering a well-guarded mosque in Canton, Michigan, posing as a woman and wearing a face veil, was only sparsely reported in local media outlets, but they have made their way through almost every Muslim community email group in the country. Similarly, viral images of the fire the next day at the New Haven mosque have struck the nationwide Muslim community hard.

During Ramadan, families go together for nightly congregational prayers, which fosters a deeper sense of community from seeing one another day after day, night after night. People socialize and strengthen the bonds of existing friendships and form new friendships. Our mosques are more alive in this holy month than they are the other 11 months combined. So, when a fire like the one in New Haven destroys the physical space in which those highly spiritual and personal bonds are developed, it is traumatic.

While the tepid media coverage of attacks on mosques seems to be tied to a lack of sensitivity to Islamophobia – as opposed to other forms of bigotry – our communities have now become particularly aware of a new reality in which security and solidarity are a constant part of our American Muslim story.

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Suleiman, an imam, is the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and an Islamic studies professor at Southern Methodist University.



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