One simply has to type the words “mosque fires” into a search engine to determine how common fires like the one Wednesday at the Islamic Society of Joplin mosque are.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have tracked dozens of fires, firebombings and incidents of vandalism at mosques around the country over the past five years.
A few examples:
• A mosque in Queens, N.Y., was firebombed in January with worshippers inside. There were no injuries.
• An arson attack on a Houston, Texas, mosque was reported in May 2011.
• Construction equipment was set afire at the site of a mosque being built in Murfreesboro, Tenn., in August 2010.
• An Oct. 31, 2011, arson fire at a mosque in Wichita, Kan., caused an estimated $120,000 in damage.
• Closer to Joplin, someone in April 2011 burned three copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and left a threatening letter near the entrance of the Islamic Center of Springfield mosque. The anonymous letter claimed that Muslims would “stain the earth” and that Islam wouldn’t survive.
The mosque had earlier been vandalized with graffiti.
An FBI agent last month said there have been positive developments in the Springfield case.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations on Thursday called for state and federal agencies to investigate the Joplin mosque fire as a possible hate crime.
“Given the suspicious nature of the fire and the past incidents targeting this mosque and Missouri’s Muslim community, state and federal officials should investigate this case as a possible hate crime,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for CAIR, a Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization.
Hooper said investigators will determine if this was a hate crime when someone is arrested.
“You can never say there’s a bias motive until a suspect is captured,” he said. “We have to wait for the investigation.”
The U.S. Department of Justice defines a hate crime as any crime in which the offender is motivated by specific characteristics of the victim, including race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
The FBI investigated when the Joplin mosque’s sign was burned in 2008. There were no arrests.
“Unfortunately, it’s all too often this happens nationwide,” Hooper said. He said CAIR recommends that all mosques have security cameras and take other security measures.
The ACLU has a map of anti-mosque activity at aclu.org/maps/map-nationwide-anti-mosque-activity. The map includes incidents in each state of vandalism, arson and firebombings, plus efforts to prevent mosque construction.
“We’ve seen a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-mosque attacks,” said Heather Weaver, a staff attorney with the ACLU. She said the attacks were especially prominent during the debate over the Park 51 Center in New York City, the so-called “ground zero mosque,” but they have continued.
Weaver said the fact that the Joplin incident took place on Independence Day also is disturbing.
“I think it’s especially troubling,” she said. “On Independence Day, we should be celebrating all of our freedoms, including freedom of religion.”
Weaver said various activities and movements have tried to marginalize Muslim communities around the country. She said they have included anti-Sharia measures promoted by state legislatures, the tea party movement condemning Muslims, and opposition to construction of mosques.
Lahmuddin, the imam at the Islamic Society of Joplin mosque, on Thursday laughed off the incident, saying someone had an unusual way of celebrating the Fourth of July.
He had received a call at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday that the roof of the mosque had been burned. He was up, preparing for 5:15 a.m. prayers at the mosque. He said he agreed with Islamic Society President Iftikhar Ali, who told the Globe that there are good and bad people everywhere.
“God will guide us,” Lahmuddin said. “These things can happen any time at any place.”
He said situations like this can help bring followers closer to God.
The imam said that the good done by the person who notified authorities of the fire and by the firefighters and investigators who responded outweighs the bad done by the person who started the fire.
He said there have been some other incidents since the mosque’s sign was burned in 2008. He said someone had shot at the new sign with an air gun. Occasionally, he said, motorists will drive by shouting slurs, including at children.
“It’s sometimes difficult for us to explain to the children,” Lahmuddin said. “These children were born in America. But it’s our opportunity to explain about things.”
He said he doesn’t have any opinion about how the incident should be prosecuted.
“We leave it to the authorities,” he said. “When you break the law, there are consequences. In this situation, we put our trust in authorities.”
Lahmuddin said he had talked with an FBI agent about the mosque’s security cameras and the security system after Wednesday’s fire.