The Center of Supervision on Mosques Affairs - The Islamic Society of North America’s headquarters sit atop a grassy hill overlooking Plainfield, Indiana. The complex includes a prayer hall, a space for community events and a field house with a basketball court and playground. It is surrounded by cornfields. As the largest mosque in the Indianapolis area, it draws hundreds of families, especially during Ramadan and on holidays.
My own family was one of those. When I was growing up in the Indianapolis suburbs we’d visit the mosque for Eid holiday prayers.
After services we’d say awkward hellos to my parents’ friends and stand in line for stale doughnuts and tea, and I’d try to find people my age to shoot a basketball around. In short, it is a fairly typical American house of worship. And last weekend it became a target of vandalism. Slurs spray-painted on its brick exterior — most of them too crude to quote — suggested all Muslims are suicide bombers or members of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
Anti-Muslim hatred in the United States has grown in recent years. The “Ground Zero Mosque” episode in 2010 and successive anti-mosque protests across the country signalled a simmering Islamophobia. In 2015, the simmer came to a boil.
That January, after a pair of terrorist attacks in Paris, pundits and conservative officials propagated a discredited myth about Sharia-run zones in European cities off limits to non-Muslims. Hashtags like #KillAllMuslims trended on Twitter. A month later, three Muslim youths were shot dead in their North Carolina apartment in what many people said was a hate crime.
An examination of anti-Muslim hatred in the past few years can easily devolve into a laundry list: armed demonstrators picketing at a mosque in Phoenix, arson at a mosque in the Coachella Valley in Southern California, a severed pig’s head placed in front of a mosque in Philadelphia. But the most alarming signs accompanied the Republican presidential race, as each candidate seemed gleefully willing to one-up the others in vilifying Muslims.
Ben Carson compared Syrian refugees to “rabid” dogs. Ted Cruz called for allowing only Christian refugees to enter the United States. And Donald J. Trump, whose statements on Islam seem to be read directly off paranoid chain emails, first stated that American Muslims celebrated the horror of the September 11 attacks (a discredited falsehood), then, after the San Bernardino, California, shooting, said all Muslims should be barred from entering the United States. Most recently, Trump repeated a stomach-churning myth about an American general who solved a conflict with Muslim enemies by soaking ammunition in pigs’ blood and shooting prisoners with it, a method of “getting tough” on terrorism.
So it was with a sense of quiet dread that I learnt about the graffiti at the Islamic Society’s headquarters, on the same wall in front of which I’ve taken countless family pictures. The wave of bigotry sweeping the country had finally crashed into the doorstep of my hometown mosque.
When I talked to family and friends in the area, I realised that the incident’s timing contributed to deepening feelings of anxiety and vulnerability: Days earlier, I was told, a bomb threat was called in to nearby Anderson University when a Muslim woman was scheduled to speak on behalf of an interfaith group. The same weekend, three young men from a largely Muslim immigrant community were found murdered under mysterious circumstances in Fort Wayne, 2-1/2 hours away.
It’s easy to turn unpleasant episodes into broad feelings of doom — and that’s often a mistake. The Islamic Society and the Indianapolis Muslim community found immediate support from the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council and several local churches. Isolated incidents happen, and stray actors do carry out random acts of hatred.
Cases of harassment
But these hateful words stained my family’s place of worship just a week after the Republican Party’s leading presidential contender approvingly repeated the story about dipping bullets in pigs’ blood and shooting Muslim rebels and two days before he won seven states’ primaries. And all of this came in a year in which there were dozens of cases of harassment, vandalism and violence targeting members of my religion.
At a news conference, Hazem Bata, the Islamic Society’s secretary-general, said: “I’m not here to focus on the negative, because once you start focusing on the negative, you start to take on a victim’s mentality. And as Muslims in America, we refuse to be victims in our own country.” This is admirable. It’s important to live without fear.
But there is a fine line between stoic resilience and irresponsible passivity. Muslims in America face a growing threat. It is up to everyone in this country to speak and act to fight the hatred and fear-mongering before it spirals out of control. Because to see words like those on the wall of my hometown mosque, at a time of accelerating anti-Muslim hatred, feels like someone, somewhere, is sharpening a knife.
Mustafa Hameed is a journalist living in New York.