After vandalism, Miami mosque leaders call for unity

A day after vandals twice left items outside the Islamic School of Miami, members filled the mosque for afternoon prayers.
A day after vandals twice left items outside the Islamic School of Miami, members filled the mosque for afternoon prayers. Miami Herald Staff

If somebody’s trying to send a threatening message to the Islamic School of Miami by leaving books on ISIS, wire cutters, computers, a ceramic skull and other puzzling totems outside the West Kendall school this month, mosque leaders said Friday they have a reply.

“We are good citizens and we are not going to be terrified or scared of these activities,” said Muhemmad Irshad, whose three children attend the school.

On Thursday, worshipers arriving for 6:15 a.m. services to mark the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage found items — which also included a hammer, chisel, a book signed by Hillary Clinton and bouquets of flowers — stacked on a sign outside the suburban mosque. A vandal had also sprayed green paint and splashed Ensure, a nutritional supplement, on a gate. About 3:30 p.m., members found more items — a wooden cross, a laptop, a navy blue sport coat emblazoned with stars and sunglasses depicting the American flag — inside the mosque.

On Friday morning, they arrived to find a sign outside the mosque pulled down.

Taken together, mosque leaders say the incidents add up to someone trying to scare and intimidate members.

“It doesn’t scare me, but we have children here. We have children, a full-time school,” said Bilal Karakira, a founding member of the mosque that opened in 1998. The school, with kindergarten through 12th grades, opened four years ago.

At a news conference Friday, Naveed Anjum,the school chairman, said members called police immediately. He said he has since talked with an FBI agent and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. A Miami Dade police spokesman said the Department of Justice was taking the lead in the investigation, but Justice spokeswoman Sarah Schall declined to confirm whether the agency is investigating.

After a series of suspicious events unnerved a Miami Islamic school, mosque leaders ask for unity and understanding.

The school has a security camera, but Anjum said the video was too grainy to be much help. A lawn worker who spotted a man entering the mosque in the afternoon before driving away may provide police with information, he said.

The incidents come as the Republican primary for president shifts the spotlight to American Muslims. Last week, Donald Trump triggered outrage when a supporter at a new Hampshire speech said Muslims were a problem for the country, before asking, “When can we get rid of them?” Trump responded: “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things.” He later asserted he hadn’t heard all of what the man had said.

Days later, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson said he would not support a Muslim president, saying the religion was not consistent with the U.S. Constitution.

Such anti-Muslim sentiments can inflame incorrect stereotypes linking the religion to violence, Muslims say. And not calling them out can legitimize the sentiment, said Daniel Alvarez, the director of Florida International University’s Muslim World Studies Center Initiative.

“Silence is a complicity and tacit approval,” he said by text.

At the mosque, members say the national headlines could be fanning local bigotry.

“We don’t think it’s a localized incident,” Irshad said. “These are stupid people telling us a message that we are not part of the community. But we are as American as other people.”

Over the years, vandals have attacked the mosque periodically. In separate incidents in 2009, the mosque was riddled with bullets and its windows smashed. Two teens were later arrested for breaking the windows, apologized and completed community service by attending classes at the school. Earlier this month, on Sept. 11, members found another collection of items left outside in a backpack, including two books on ISIS, electronic cigarettes, a medal depicting praying hands and a computer.

“A lot of my friends are saying, ‘Why is he doing this?’ ” said Iyad Sheikh, a ninth-grader at the school and Irshad’s son. “We’re saying we should all stick together and make prayers.”

The mosque hopes to have better surveillance cameras installed by Monday, Anjum said.

Paradise Afshar contributed to this report.

Jenny Staletovich: 305-376-2109, @jenstaletovich