TACOMA – Islamic Center of Tacoma Executive Director Abdulhakim Mohamed was out of town Monday night when he learned that authorities were at his mosque, investigating a possible arson.
But it hardly made a difference, he said in an interview Thursday. There was already a community in place, ready to spring into action and help.
Around 8:20 p.m. Monday, West Pierce Fire & Rescue responded to a fire at the center in University Place. Just as evening prayer was about to begin, the estimated 10 people who were in the building could smell the smoke and were able to get out safely, said Mohamed, 53.
The case is being investigated as an arson after a witness reported seeing someone believed to have started the fire fleeing the scene, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Jeffrey Papen said.
According to Mohamed, a witness saw a person throw something onto the roof, which started the fire. Security footage from the Islamic Center has been turned over to investigators, he said.
A reverend from the neighboring Episcopal church arrived on scene as soon as he heard about the fire. The following day, the church hosted the Islamic community’s meeting to address the incident. Donations and calls of support flooded in all before Mohamed could even return to Tacoma.
In the short time since the fire, Mohamed said leaders at the Islamic Center have been overwhelmed by support from the broader community. Tacoma faith leaders have offered up their own churches and space for Islamic services and Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and Gov. Jay Inslee have reached out with support, he said.
An online fundraiser to help rebuild the center has garnered over $225,000 from over 2,100 donors.
The Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations is calling for an investigation into a possible bias motive.
“We are heartbroken to hear of this horrific attack on one of our houses of worship,” CAIR Washington Executive Director Imraan Siddiqi said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important that authorities investigate a possible bias motive in this apparent arson, as we have seen a disturbing trend of mosques, temples and minority-led houses of worship being targeted by hate in recent years.”
The Islamic Center in Bellevue was damaged by a fire for the second time in 2018. A year prior, a man set fire to the center. Police said there were no indications the two fires were linked to terrorism or a hate crime.
It will be up to the investigators to figure out if the Tacoma fire was targeted or driven by Islamophobia, Mohamed said. “I’m hoping he’s just some lunatic that did something that he should not and it’s not really based on hate.”
If it was motivated by hatred, Mohamed said, the culprit probably didn’t anticipate that hundreds of people would show support and love.
“Look where we are right now,” he said. “We’re doing our service at someone else’s church and faith that differs from ours. But they’re opening their doors for us to say our lord’s name in their center.”
The building is currently not safe and the damage is still being assessed, according to Mohamed, who said due to water damage, the walls will likely have to be torn down and rebuilt.
The Islamic Center in Tacoma is the only mosque for at least 25 miles and has more than 3,000 members. The center hosts five prayer services daily, including one on Friday, which is thought of as a celebration of the week and draws 400 to 500 people – nearly 700 before the pandemic – Mohamed said.
The center also has a weekend school for children, night classes and social services, including food and clothing donation.
Mohamed said he is busy organizing the fire cleanup and a fundraiser for the center, and coordinating Friday’s service, which will be held at a new location.
His message for this week’s sermon? “For every hate, there’s a lot of love,” he said.
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