Imam Lahmuddin in the aftermath of an arson attack on the mosque he leads.
(Photo: T. Rob Brown/AP)
The Council on American-Islamic Relations is now offering a $10,000 reward for information about the fire that leads ”to the arrest and conviction of whoever may have caused [the] fire.”
The July 4 arson was caught on camera, but no one has been arrested yet.
For more on the mosque burning, I spoke with Imam Lahmuddin, who has led Joplin’s Muslim community in prayer since 2008. Lahmuddin uses one name. Below is a transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Alex Kane: Lay out what exactly happened on Monday, what you know about the arson.
Imam Lahmuddin: Well, during the month of Ramadan, we meet at the mosque for the prayers, and Sunday evening I was the last one to leave the building at about ten minutes after 11. I closed the door and the gate and went home and expected to come back the next morning at 5 o’clock to do the morning prayer.
But at 3:15 I got a call from the sheriff’s office. I missed the call and got a message that the call is from the sheriff’s office. When I heard “sheriff’s office” at that time, early in the morning, I sensed something wrong with the mosque. So I was preparing myself to eat suhoor [the meal before the Ramadan fast begins] and to begin fasting and I delayed that and left the house and drove to the mosque. It takes five minutes to get to the mosque, but from a distance I saw smoke from the sky, from the location of the mosque, and I hoped it’s not from the mosque. But when I arrived there, it is from the mosque–it was on fire. Part of the roof was covered by fire and the sheriff’s car was on the property of the mosque and I saw one fire truck behind the mosque. And I stopped at a neighbor’s driveway to look at the mosque for about five minutes, and the roof collapsed into the building and burned everything. And then I left.
I was very sad and could not do anything. They don’t allow anyone to walk on the property because of the situation. And that’s basically what happened and what I saw at the time. And while I was there, I met with the sheriff, who I met before, and with him there were three people, and the sheriff told me that this is the newspaper man who reported the fire to the authorities. So the paper boy said sorry and I thanked him.
AK: And this is the second attempted arson–though this time it succeeded-in one month. What are your thoughts on that?
IL: Well, yes this is the second one. For the first one, we caught the face of the man who did the fire. We have the evidence because we have the security camera and I helped the FBI agent get a recording. But this time, because everything was burned–the building, everything–the security camera was all burnt. And we don’t have anything for the authorities this time. And I don’t speculate whether this fire is related to the first one. The first one happened on July 4, and this one happened on August 6, just one month and two days apart.
AK: And there have also been past threats against your mosque?
IL: Yes, yes. Sometimes we hear people in their vehicles passing by and yell at the kids, and sometimes it happens when you’re outside the building. And in 2008, the [mosque] sign was burned, and we replaced it a year ago with a completely new sign that said the “Islamic Society of Joplin” with our address on it. We found that somebody shot an [air] gun on the sign–we saw the ball of the bullet.
AK: How big is the Muslim community in Joplin?
IL: We have about 40-50 families–not that big. And during the Friday prayers, we have about 30-40 men and boys attend the Friday prayers. But on weekend gatherings, like what we had on Saturday, there were 30 of us, but we had about 20 guests from different churches in Joplin who we invited to have breakfast with us.
AK: How would you describe the Muslim community’s relations with other people?
IL: We have very good relations with the people here in Joplin. People are nice and we have a good relationship with different people. And 80% of the members here are physicians at the hospital, and they deal on a daily basis with the residents of Joplin, who are Christians or of other faiths. So we don’t have any problems, I believe, with the residents of Joplin, because we feel that we are part of the city.
AK: And how do you and the Muslim community feel at this moment?
IL: Well, we have a lot of support from our friends from our Christian and Jewish friends. We feel good to have this kind of sympathy from them. And in particular, today I read the local newspaper, that the editor mentions that this is not only a tragedy for the Muslims. It’s a tragedy for the people of Joplin. So this is something that the people and residents of Joplin hate, and they don’t like to see this.
AK: Do you feel adequately protected by law enforcement?
IL: Oh yes, yes. They do their part, and we met with the law enforcement about two weeks ago at our mosque and we mentioned our concerns and they promised to increase the security and patrolling around the mosque. And we are very thankful for them–they do their best, they do their job.
AK: And what do you think the mosque arsons say about the political climate for Muslims living in the US?
IL: I feel that there are good people and bad people. And I was quoted in the newspaper that this is a test from God. From our point of view, we look at it that way.
AK: My last question is what will your next steps be, for the Muslim community in Joplin and your mosque?
IL: We have the obligation to worship our God, to serve God in this life. And this tragedy should not stop us from fulfilling our obligation. And as a community, we will go forward to continue our service to the community. And that’s basically our obligation. 80% of our members here are at the hospital, they are at work right now, it’s a working day, and at the same time dealing with this kind of situation. And at the same time, they have to do their prayer, and they did it when we had the mosque. So now we don’t have the mosque, but we still have to fulfill our obligations to God to pray five times a day at any place you can do it.