By Alex Fees
St. Louis County (KSDK) - Representatives of the St. Louis chapter of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, are united in their opposition to the treatment of Muslims in southwest Missouri.
They held a news conference Wednesday to outline their concerns about two fires within the past month at an Islamic temple in Jasper County, Missouri, near Joplin.
At that news conference, Faizan Syed, Executive Director of CAIR offered a harrowing account of something he witnessed while he was visiting the site of the Islamic Society of Joplin after the fire.
"I was there with David Meyers," said Syed, "who was the envoy for the President of the United States. And there were children going through the rubble trying to salvage whatever they could. And there were people driving by in their trucks cursing the mosque, cursing the children. It was very, very offensive cursing. And this happened after the mosque had been burned down, as the press is there, when the envoy is there."
Syed said David Meyers is coordinator for the Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership Office of the White House. Syed offered what he witnessed as evidence of the atmosphere Muslims in southwest Missouri are facing.
"We've gathered here today to show our support as a community in St. Louis," said Syed. "But also as an American community. The message is that we support the Muslim community of Joplin during their time of tragedy. And that we are all here and gathered to show our solidarity in that community as well."
The Islamic temple was completely destroyed after fires July 5 and August 6. CAIR officials are offering a $15,000 reward for information that helps investigators determine who is responsible. Combined with what the FBI is already offering, that bring the total reward to $25,000.
"We're hoping that with this offer and with this reward money and with the media attention that somebody who knows who did this will come forward, and we can have justice in that community as well," said Syed.
He said in the last 12 days there have been eight attacks at Muslim houses of worship.
"And of course the Sikh shooting in Wisconsin," he said, "which preceded all of this. And these attacks are not individual, isolated incidents. Rather this is part of an atmosphere of hate that's being created by a small group of radical Islamophobes in this country."
Dr. Ghazala Hayat, with the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis lent her voice to the stand against bigotry.
"The Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis greatly condemns the burning of the mosque in Joplin," said Dr. Hayat. "Joplin is a city where last year every faith, every community came together. This time what we saw is hatred."
Hayat said she believes acts of this nature increase during an election year.
"This rhetoric goes up," she said. "Unfortunately politicians for their own political gain use this kind of rhetoric. People who are not very open to other faiths usually have words for our people. They commit these kinds of crimes. Burning a mosque was very disheartening to Muslims all over the country; we heard from a lot of people. St. Louis has this brotherhood with that group. But I would also like to say we are really heartened by the response of non-Muslims in that city to raise money to build a mosque again."
Sister Barbara Jennings is a Catholic nun who also spoke at the news conference. A member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Jennings said she is also part of the Inter-Community Justice Ministry, which she described as a coalition of Catholic sisters in St. Louis.
"We deplore the burning and defacement of any place of worship in this country or anywhere," said Sister Jennings. "Christ taught and practiced non-violence; that's the meaning of the cross. Christ forgave his persecutors. Christ taught love, not hate. Even love of enemies. We believe the real enemy here is fundamentalism in any religion. No matter what it is-Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hinduism-- fundamentalism is the real enemy."
Jennings said Christians are called to face their fear and ignorance.
"We are called to recognize these in ourselves and to follow Christ in eradicating these," she said. "So we hope that all people who have been involved in these acts will take a strong look at themselves and their lack of understanding, their lack of courage and diversity in this country."
Brigitte Rosenberg is Rabbinical Association President and rabbi at United Hebrew Congregation.
"Within our tradition in the book of Leviticus," said Rabbi Rosenberg, "we are taught our responsibility toward our fellow man. We are taught to love our neighbors as ourselves and not stand idly by while our neighbors bleed. And certainly as Americans this is most important; that we will not stand for the burning down of a mosque or the defacement of houses of worship. And that hatred cannot take place in our community."
Rosenberg said the Jewish tradition teaches that each person is created in the image of God.
"That no matter our race our religion," she said, "where we hail from, that each and every one of us was created in God's image; that each and every one of us has that divineness from God that is within us. We need to look at each other as creations from God and look to see the goodness, and break down those walls and stereotypes."
Vanessa Crawford Aragon is with MIRA, the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocate.
"The reason things like this happen, this spate of hate crimes against places of worship," said Crawford Aragon, "is that people are targeting those they view as different than themselves. What we can't do is this continual demonization that because someone is Muslim, because someone is Sikh, born in a different country, a different race, that they are somehow suspicious."
Brenda Jones is with the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.
"I am here to declare that there are no second-class citizens in America, and it is not open season on Muslims in America," said Jones. "Our government, legal systems, and legislative systems were set up to limit bigotry, not promote intolerance."
Jones said a cycle driven by fear, hatred, and ignorance has been steadily escalating since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that so much of the violence has come in the wake of Rep. Peter King's hearings on so-called 'Muslim extremism,'" she said. "The real extremism is in the steady trend of discrimination against Muslims and other religions based upon cultural stereotyping."
Jones cited other recent examples of similar incidents from all over the country.
"This is not okay," she said. "None of this is okay. And our criminal justice system needs to spend just a fraction of the time it spends on making America safe from so-called illegal aliens, just a fraction of the time to find and prosecute these culprits."
Karen Aroesty represented the Anti-Defamation League.
"The response has been very interesting," she said, talking about the aftermath of the Joplin mosque fires. "In some ways it's very positive. That is, interfaith communities have come together to support Muslim communities, not only around the region but around the country. That they've also been forced to by the incidents in Milwaukee at the Sikh Temple."
Aroesty said it's not just Muslims who should feel at-risk.
"We should all feel at risk," she said. "Because frankly if one of us is a target at any one time, any of us can be a target."