Vandals target Islamic Society

January 29, 2003|by JULIE E. GREENE

Washington County religious leaders are trying to determine how to respond to a series of vandalism acts against the Islamic Society of Western Maryland in the wake of the most recent incident.

The society announced Tuesday it is offering a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for vandalizing or stealing their sign at the intersection of Day Road and Landis Road.

Last Friday, the sign was found to have been cut off with a chain saw, Washington County Sheriff's Deputy Greg Woelfel has said. The sign and part of the post were missing. The incident occurred between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m.


The sign led people to the masjid, or mosque, at 2036 Day Road, society member Faisal Husseini said. After previous incidents with the sign, society members set a new sign in concrete.

"They couldn't pull it out like they did the last one, so they cut it down with a power saw," Husseini said.

The mosque's Imam, Syed Burmi, said he believes the acts were religiously motivated.

The sign was stolen the first time between June 22 and 23, 2002, Investigator Greg Alton said. Damage was estimated at $15.

On July 23, the society's day care center received an obscene phone call that turned into a possible bomb threat, Alton said. Police searched the day care and found nothing, he said.

Burmi said the 18 to 19 children at the day care were evacuated as a precaution.

The day care closed later in the year because it could not retain employees, who were afraid of biased attitudes against the Muslim population, Burmi said.

The society's 4-foot-by-4-foot sign was stolen again between 10 p.m. on Sept. 11 and 6 a.m. on Sept. 12, 2002, Alton said.

After last Friday's incident police dusted the sign pole for fingerprints, but had no leads as of Tuesday, Alton said.

Besides being destruction of property, Friday's crime is considered a possible racial, religious or ethnic incident - more commonly known as a hate crime, Woelfel said.

Because the incidents occurred after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and one of them occurred on the first anniversary of the attacks, Burmi said it is possible the perpetrator was lashing out against the Islamic Society because radical Muslims were tied to the attacks.

"We are peaceful and we have nothing to do with Sept. 11," Burmi said.

The 35 Tri-State area families who are members of the society try to be good neighbors, he said.

Dr. Shahab Siddiqui, a society board member and leader with the Interfaith Coalition of Washington County, said it's possible the perpetrator lives in the neighborhood and has concerns about traffic the mosque draws. Many members go to the mosque five times a day to pray, he said.

Siddiqui said he would like the perpetrator to meet with society members to resolve the person's grudge.

Siddiqui said he would prefer to see the $500 reward go to someone who provides information that finds the perpetrator. Rather than have the matter pursued criminally, he said he wants to resolve it peacefully with the person.

The first priority, Siddiqui said, is to make sure the incidents don't continue or escalate.

The Rev. Edward Poling, the Interfaith Coalition's coordinator, said coalition leaders have been talking about how to respond to the vandalism.

"We certainly want to be supportive of our brothers and sisters at the Islamic Society and seek to find ways to bring people together rather than polarize on this issue," Poling said.

Poling said the incidents appear to be more than an act of mischief because they are aimed specifically at the Islamic Society.

"It starts to take on a sinister nature," Poling said. "It's not a random act of violence or property."

"It's certainly becoming a problem in our community that we need to address," Poling said.

Rabbi Janice Garfunkel of Congregation B'nai Abraham said she hopes the community rallies around the mosque to condemn the vandalism.

"Obviously, someone is being intolerant and bigoted and I don't think that reflects what Hagerstown is about or wants to be known for," Garfunkel said.

Graffiti, including a swastika, were spray painted near Garfunkel's parking space at the synagogue in September 1999. Police had a suspect in that crime, but didn't pursue it because the suspect went to prison on other charges, Garfunkel said. The graffiti stopped after that, she said.

Other than the recent acts against the Islamic Society, Garfunkel and Poling said they did not know of any other recent acts of vandalism against local religious institutions.

Anyone with information about the recent vandalism and theft may call the Washington County Sheriff's Department at 301-791-3020.

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