A fire that destroyed a Surrey area mosque in British Columbia last week is suspected by area Muslims as a possible hate crime.
According to Canadian media reports and interviews with mosque officials, the fire was noticed early Thursday by a worshipper who was praying in mosque's basement. When he discovered the lobby was in flames, he ran from the building and called 911.
When firefighters arrived, the two-story building was fully engulfed in flames. The lobby was destroyed and the rest of the building suffered heavy damage. No injuries were reported.
Police told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that they are following up witness reports of a van speeding away from the scene just before an explosion was heard. Investigators have not ruled out arson.
The Canadian chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations called on law enforcement officials to investigate the suspicious fire as a hate crime. CAIR-Canada director Sheema Khan believes recent tensions in the Middle East and negative portrayals of Muslims in the American and Canadian media point to a possible motive in the attack.
"The racist tone of pro-Israel commentaries in the current Middle East crisis only serves to fan the flames of existing prejudice and stereotyping. This anti-Muslim rhetoric can easily turn into the reality of physical attacks," said Dr. Sheema Khan, director of CAIR's Canadian Office (CAIR-CAN). By way of example, she cited a November 19 Calgary Sun commentary claiming the "mandate of Islam" is "death to the Jews." Representatives of that same newspaper recently apologized after an associate editor told Muslim critics "Allah be damned! Mohammed too!"
In another incident on October 13, panelist Victor Mordecai said "...the Muslim people are good people, but Islam is a Satanic system," during a program on radio station CJBK in London, Ontario. In the October 30th issue of MacLean's magazine, columnist Barbara Amiel wrote: "Arab culture...appears to put the glory of the tribe and Allah before the individual's happiness or suffering."
A recently released media report by the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) cited Canada's National Post as the newspaper that publishes the most Islamophobic rhetoric.
CAIR reports that remarks by a range of public figures, from congressional candidates to syndicated columnists, have portrayed Islam as "murderous" and Palestinians as "lower than pond scum" or "rag heads," "pieces of sh-t" and "turds." And several weeks ago, CAIR released a statement citing fears that "the escalation of Islamophobic rhetoric could trigger a backlash against American Muslims." CAIR cited as an example the anti-Muslim hysteria following the 1995 terrorist attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Attacks on mosques and Islamic centers have occurred across America. Just recently, vandals targeted the Islamic Center of Southern California. In June, a gunman attacked a Memphis, Tenn., Islamic center as worshipers gathered for morning prayers. 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.
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.
Surrey Masjid, which opened in 1979, was British Columbia's first mosque.