The arson at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo last month made headlines in the United States and around the world.
Although it took only minutes to douse the Perrysburg Township sanctuary with gasoline and light the fire, it will take at least six months to restore the mosque to full use, at a cost of more than $1 million.
A suspect is in police custody. The U.S. Attorney has filed charges of damaging religious property and using fire or explosives in connection with commission of a federal felony.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. But that freedom is threatened by wanton acts of arson and other intimidation against minorities. In the past three months, according to national media reports, there have been eight incidents of arson, shots fired, bombing, or desecration of places of worship and residences of minorities, mostly Muslims, across the country.
Such incidents raise painful questions. Why are some people willing to desecrate the Constitution by denying freedom of religion to their fellow citizens? Why should the sins of the followers of certain religions in other parts of the world be visited on Americans who profess the same faith?
Political and social discord and disagreement are hallmarks of western democracies. But is there a difference between the freedom to talk and freedom to incite?
You cannot point a finger only at the uneducated and uncouth without questioning the incendiary anti-Muslim diatribes from the right wing of the Republican Party, some Protestant pulpits, and pundits on the airwaves.
The “great unwashed” take their cues from conniving politicians, self-righteous clergy, and free-lance provocateurs. They may not form mobs as they once did against Jews, Catholics, and Irish and African-Americans, in the not too distant past. But they now include not only people in the lower socioeconomic layers of our society, but also people who are well-educated and well-heeled.
For many years, Muslim places of worship have been under surveillance by law enforcement. Muslims in this country feel under siege.
For the sake of argument, you could perhaps justify surveillance and infiltration of mosques for the greater good of society. But how about surveillance of those who poison the well while dancing over the ill-defined boundary of free speech?
The incident at the Islamic Center has affected its members to their core. In the face of an overwhelming feeling of vulnerability among Muslims, there are the reassuring hands of the multifaith community that gathered at the mosque to express their dismay at the incident and stand in solidarity with Toledo area Muslims.
Since its construction in 1982, the Islamic Center has opened its doors to everyone and stood for interfaith dialogue and understanding.
Those of us who were privileged to plan the center and guide its construction were committed to making it a symbol of progressive Islam and a source of understanding and trust among different faiths.
Those at the center not only preached gender equality, but also practiced it by electing two women to the presidency of the center’s community. Both women have led the center with class and grace.
When terrorists attacked this country on Sept. 11, 2001, Cherrefee Kadri, a Toledo-born lawyer, was the face of the Islamic Center. She did an admirable job of making people understand that not all Muslims are extremists, and that Islam does not permit wanton acts of violence.
Now, another woman, Mahjabeen Islam, is at the helm. As the news of the arson at the center spread, she has become the reassuring and dignified face of Islam in America.
Imam Farooq Abo Elzahab, the center’s spiritual leader, has been a tireless voice of reason and compassion. His sermons, unlike those of many other preachers, speak to the true teachings of Islam as seen through the prism of understanding and thoughtful interpretation.
Bigotry, racism, and hatred are old human traits and will not disappear. But at times such as these, the support of faith-based communities and the general public buoys the wounded heart and lifts the sagging spirit.
This support reassures us that collectively we reject and condemn both the screaming extremists on the streets of Islamabad and Cairo, and the shadowy arsonists in America.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
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