Members of the Islamic Center of Tacoma say, ‘You’re forgiven,’ to the arsonist

Firefighters put out the fire at the Islamic Center of Tacoma.
(Photo courtesy of Alaa Alshaibani)

On the fateful night of Oct. 11, flames engulfed the Islamic Center of Tacoma, a mosque or masjid, in University Place, destroying much of the roof and interior of the building and rendering the space unusable for the foreseeable future; however, this was no ordinary fire — it was an arson attack.

According to a witness, the perpetrator threw a Molotov cocktail onto the roof while Muslims were beginning their prayers. From this eyewitness report, the attack was not only arson, but also attempted mass murder.

Clearly, attacks like this cannot continue and this attack cannot go unaddressed. On October 31, Bellarmine juniors Xavier Nazzal and Noah Wilson attended an interfaith event at Tacoma  Community College and, afterwards, interviewed several Muslim people from the Islamic Center of Tacoma.

1. For context, how did this attack play out?

Alaa: The event took place on the night of Oct. 11. It was right before Isha prayer, which is the last prayer of the day. Witnesses saw a man run into the parking lot and throw a Molotov cocktail on the roof and then run away. The fire department came and blew out the fire, which caused a lot of water damage to the building.

Aisha: I want to add that there were people inside at the time, because it was the last prayer of the day. It is the evening prayer around 8 p.m. and there were people inside at the time and they were informed that there was a fire inside and were able to escape safely on time.

2. Are there any leads that you know of?

Sarah: As far as we know, they have arrested the potential arsonist and he is currently being charged for the arson attack and attempted murder. Right now he is standing trial. That it is all we know so far.

3.  Given that this arson attack was confirmed as a hate crime, why do you think that people in this country keep misunderstanding Muslims and continuously act hatefully against them as we have evidently seen with this attack?

Sarah: I feel like the number one culprit for it is media. They tend to portray certain religious groups as being radical and they never want to broadcast something that is a positive thing in a community, because it bores them to death. They would rather hear something that is going on like an attack — like a Muslim man or woman put an attack on a certain area or something.

Alaa: Great question. I think a lot of it is due to ignorance and a lot of it is due to willful ignorance. A lot of people just don’t know. And so they hear whatever it is they hear from politicians or from celebrities or from the media as Sarah mentioned, and then that’s what they believe, because that’s what they hear, because they don’t know an actual Muslim person. The average American doesn’t know a Muslim person and they’re going to believe whatever they see or hear on the media or if someone is telling them something.

4. How will you continue your religious practices given the mosque’s current condition?

Sarah: In terms of continuing to worship, I feel that our community has reached out a lot in finding a place to continue worshiping. Saint Mark’s Lutheran is actually where we are containing our prayers at. Tacoma Community College is where we do our daily prayers and our Friday prayers. The community has done so much in helping us.

Aisha: I’d like to add that we got support immediately, like Sarah mentioned, the churches reached out to us and offered their space to us. It was more than one church. And then sooner after that, TCC also offered us their space. We have plenty of support. We did not have to look super hard to find an alternative space to keep practicing. A lot of good has come out of the attack.

Firdous: I just want to say thank you to the churches and local religious communities around who offered to let us pray there. It really helps out a lot. It shows the community that we are all one. It doesn’t matter what our religion is. We are all humans.

5. Do you believe that this catastrophe happened for a reason and, if so, then do you believe that good will come out of this incredibly dire situation?

Aisha: That’s a good question. I think every action has a motive and although we haven’t gotten confirmed information about the motives behind this attack; I would encourage direct information. I would like more direct information from the court, from the arsonist, and from the whole process in general.

6. If you could say anything to this arsonist, what would you say?

Aisha: I would tell him that I wish I could have spoken to him before the attack and I still wish to speak to him now. I would like to invite him to speak to us now to really show him that our community is a community of love and compassion and support and our religion is peace. If there is a thing that I could have clarified or educated on or I could have cleared any misconceptions, I would have loved to do it. Even now, I forgive him and I think a lot of the community can agree that we forgive him. And we just want to make sure he understands that is what our faith is about. Our faith is strong. I wish we could have an opportunity to tell him what it is like being a Muslim and a Muslim in a Western country and we also want him to come on out to these interfaith events to show him that it is not just Muslims who come together to practice faith, it is people of all religions who come out to these events and host these events. We have a lot of dialogue and interfaith. We have a big interfaith community and I would have loved for him to be a part of it.

Sarah: We are known for our doors to be open for all five hours. I wish he knew that our doors are open for him to come. I think a lot of world issues could be resolved with clear communication. I just wanted to let him know that he’s forgiven, because I feel like nowadays a lot of people are just ignorant to the people around them, especially like in our Western county and the media plays a large role in interpreting people in a different light. I want you [the arsonist] to know that our doors are open for you to come in and that you are forgiven, because our religion teaches to forgive and to welcome you.

7. What can we as a community do to assist you?

Sarah: I think when these attacks happen in our community, I mean I know it’s a negative thing, but I look at it in a positive outlook, because it really brings us together. Especially with the attacks in Tacoma with the churches, with the synagogues. It brings us closer. I meet people I have never met in my life and I have lived in this community for so long. It is sad that this only happens when these attacks happen. I think as a comment, just letting people around you know that you are loved and you are cared for whether you come from a Muslim background or a Christian background or a Jewish background or whatever it might be, you are welcome to practice your religion. For instance, when the arson attack happened at our mosque, a bunch of churches opened their doors for us. It is sad that we don’t have our actual facility to pray, but it is amazing that they open their doors to us is just amazing. Just love and support is worth everything to us, more than the money that exists in this world.

Imam Dr. Abdulhakim Mohamed of the Islamic Center of Tacoma addresses the community at the recent interfaith gathering at TCC. (Photo courtesy of Alaa Alshaibani)

Aisha: I would like to add to that. Support and love comes in a lot of ways. And showing up to events like this where we come in solidarity, where we hold the people in power accountable. We do not want to see more attacks. We want to see more ways to hold politicians accountable like creating some type of workforce where we can have concrete things done about how we can prevent these things from happening.

Sarah: And reaching out to other churches, reaching out to them, emailing them, whatever you guys need we are there to stand with you. That is what all religions teach, to love and accept one another.

Despite the grim realities of this crime, Muslims have managed to raise over $300,000 for their rebuilding efforts. Reconstruction has not started, but all help is appreciated.

If you are interested in donating to this cause, use this link: