A U.S. Islamic advocacy group is calling on local Muslim communities to improve mosque security following a shooting attack on a Memphis, Tennessee mosque as worshipers gathered for early morning prayers Tuesday.
The warning came hours after a Muslim was critically wounded by a gunman believed to be a neighbor of the Masjid Al-Nur mosque, located near the University of Memphis campus.
Danish Siddiqui, president of the Muslim Students Association in Memphis, was not at the mosque at the time of the shooting, but did speak to the shooting victim after he was admitted to The Med, a Memphis area hospital.
Siddiqui told iviews.com twenty-six year-old Najeh Abdel Karim, was shot outside the mosque by a neighbor around 4:30 a.m., shortly after the start of Fajr prayers.
According to police and witness reports, Karim was approached by twenty-six year-old Brent Fong, who had asked him if the 18-wheeler parked on the curb was his. When Karim told him yes, the suspect invited him to his home and reportedly said, "I have a package for you." The suspect then came out with a shotgun and shot Karim in the upper left thigh.
Karim ran to the mosque for help and the gunman followed. Another worshiper was able to bring the victim to safety and call police for help. The suspect continued to fire shots at the mosque from just outside the door.
Police arrested the suspect, 26 year old Brent Fong, shortly after arriving on the scene. While being handcuffed, Fong told police, "I finally did it...I'm tired of them disrespecting my family," police said.
Fong was charged late Tuesday afternoon with attempted first-degree murder and nine counts of reckless endangerment.
Community members are releived Fong is in custody, but are upset at what they say was a slow police response. Witnesses say the gunman had enough time to go back home and re-load his shotgun after the first 911 call was made. When Fong returned, he fired more shots at the mosque, leaving bullet holes in one of the entrances.
"One brother drove to a nearby Exxon where he found three police officers. They said, 'We know, we know,' but did not come to the mosque right away," said Siddiqui. Officers drove by the street on which the shooting incident occurred twice before arriving, he added.
A spokesperson for the Memphis Police Department, Officer Latanya Able, said she was unaware of any such complaints. Able said the department responded as soon as they received the calls and made an immediate arrest.
Siddiqui said Fong had been harassing members of the mosque for several years by cursing and throwing dirt at worshippers as they entered the mosque.
Community leaders have tried to solve the neighbor dispute by attempting to purchase the property from Fong's landlord, but were turned down. Mosque leaders say the owner repeatedly refused to sell the land because they are Muslim.
The incident has shocked the Memphis community and has gained much attention from the local media. Neighboring churches are also lending their support to the mosque, said member Nabil Bayakly.
CAIR has asked authorities to investigate the incident as a possible hate crime. But authorities say they have no reason to believe Fong was motivated by a hate for Muslims. In some U.S. states, hate crimes carry tougher penalties.
The incident comes at a time when Washington is considering legislation of its own that would make hate crimes a criminal offense. The new measure would enable the justice department to declare any felony with a sexual, racial or ethnic motive a federal crime, allowing federal authorities to pursue perpetrators across state lines cooperating with local authorities.
Similar incidents have occurred at Islamic centers across the country. In May of last year, a would-be terrorist was arrested after fleeing from the area of a mosque near Denver, Colo. The suspect's car was found to contain loaded weapons and bomb-making materials, according to a report published by CAIR.
As early as 1994, a nearly completed mosque in Yuba City, Calif., burned to the ground in what was ruled an arson attack. In 1995, arson destroyed a Springfield, Ill., Islamic center. And in 1996, a suspect was charged for involvement in an arson attack on a Greenville, S.C., mosque. Acts of mosque vandalism have occurred in Michigan, Indiana, New Jersey, Colorado, Illinois, and Georgia. Last year, an arson attack severely damaged a Minneapolis, Minn., mosque, according to the report.
Since 1991, some 60,000 hate crimes have been reported across the United States, according to statistics released by the office of Senator Ted Kennedy.
Sixty-two percent of those hate crimes were motivated by race, 16 percent by religion, 12 percent by sexual orientation and 10 percent by national or ethnic background.
CAIR is asking its members to increase security at Islamic centers by installing floodlights, burglar-proof window bars and stronger doors. Members are also being encouraged to reach out to their communities and local police departments to help ensure their safety.