The FBI was back for the third time in two weeks, but agents didn’t have much news to offer.
They were still looking into the threats that had arrived in the mosque’s voice mail two weeks earlier. And they were still looking into the newer drawing of a pig and a mosque that had come in the mail, a rendering so childish and crude that despite the accompanying message — “KILL ALL MUSLIMS” — one of the mosque’s security guards said he couldn’t help but laugh when he saw it.
But you can’t take chances with these things, the mosque’s leaders said. Not in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and certainly not now, when many Muslims feel that suspicion — or even harassment — of those who practice their religion is officially condoned in the United States.
“There’s a climate that says, ‘That’s okay, that’s acceptable now,’ ” said Johari Abdul-Malik, an imam at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Fairfax County, Va., and the mosque’s outreach director. And although most callers will never act on their words, one must always consider the possibility that someone will.
It was a Friday, the sixth since President Trump took office, when the FBI paid its most recent visit, and before the day was over, there was another strange incident at Dar al-Hijrah that left mosque leaders feeling deeply unsettled: a homeless man caught taking pictures of the premises with an expensive camera as hundreds of people streamed into the building to pray. Security escorted the man off the grounds, but they were never able to ascertain why he was taking pictures.
Hate crimes against Muslims shot up 67 percent in 2015, according to FBI statistics released at the end of last year, and hate crimes overall since then appear on track to outpace that year, according to new statistics compiled by Brian Levin, a criminologist at California State University at San Bernardino who tracks hate crimes.
Preliminary hate crimes statistics for half a dozen state and local jurisdictions across the country show a precipitous rise in 2016, a trend that appears to be continuing into 2017, Levin said Wednesday. “Hate crimes in New York City are up 113 percent from the same period last year,” he said. In Chicago, there was a 24 percent increase in 2016; in Seattle, 6 percent.
Hate crimes in Montgomery County, Md. — a 30-minute drive from Dar al-Hijrah — were up more than 42 percent in 2016, Levin said, and more than 40 percent of them were religiously motivated.
“What I think is happening is we’ve seen a normalization of faith-based bigotry and it’s translating in a variety of different ways, one of which, unfortunately, is hate-crime spikes,” he said.
Scores of Jewish institutions across the country, including schools and synagogues, have been the targets of bomb threats during the past two months. In separate incidents, vandals defaced headstones at three Jewish cemeteries.
Law enforcement officials in Texas and Florida are investigating fires at three mosques, at least two of which have been ruled arson. Last month in Kansas, a white man shouting “Get out of my country” shot dead an Indian engineer, who he apparently believed to be from the Middle East. Near Seattle this month, a masked assailant wounded a Sikh man — a member of an Indian religious minority who are sometimes confused for Muslims because the men wear turbans — after shouting at him to “go back to your country,” and authorities are investigating it as a hate crime. Police in South Carolina are investigating the shooting death of an Indian man there the day before.
Under pressure amid mounting threats against American Jews, Trump late last month publicly condemned the threatening calls to Jewish institutions and the attacks on cemeteries.
He has said no such thing about attacks on Muslims, some of whom he has barred from entering the United States via an executive order that blocks immigration from several Muslim-
Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman, said in an email that “President Trump condemns hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.”
To Shaker Elsayed, Dar al-
Hijrah’s lead imam, the harassment of American Jews is a bellwether of how bad things have gotten.
“The Jewish community has been here for centuries, and if they’re being attacked, we shouldn’t feel safe at all,” he said. Elsayed immigrated from Egypt decades ago.
At Dar al-Hijrah, the man with what sounded like a Tennessee accent and a man with an apparent Boston accent called on a Friday, but no one noticed their messages until the following Monday evening.
The first message, left at 7:47 a.m. on Feb. 17, contained a quick slew of expletives and instructions to “get the f--- out of here.”
The second caller, who left his message at 4:10 p.m., said, “You motherf---ers better leave the country because if you come to the U.S., and start training f---ing Muslim terrorists, we’re going to f---ing bomb you, you f---ing piece of s---.”
The first voice mail came from a phone number that, in public records, links to a man living in the small, predominantly white town of Dayton in rural east Tennessee. The other matches a man living in the working-class town of Taunton, Mass., about 20 miles east of Providence, R.I.
No one at the mosque called them back, and the FBI didn’t offer any insights. The FBI said it is aware of the threats reported by Dar al-Hijrah, and it confirmed that it responded.
On March 3, agents sat down with mosque leaders in the quiet back room where they usually meet and told them what they already knew, Abdul-Malik said: The threats weren’t specific enough; they weren’t actionable; they didn’t name a time or place. So there would not be any charges filed.
The leaders of Dar al-Hijrah have prepared for this moment. They have sought over the years to maintain an active relationship with the men and women charged with protecting them, even as many suspect that the FBI also spies on them. And a week before Trump assumed office Jan. 20, they invited the FBI to speak to their community. They hoped that it might provide mutual reassurance that everything would be okay under a new administration.
Abdul-Malik brought Paul Abbate, then the head of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, up to the podium after a Friday sermon and clapped him on the back.
“You see all these people in suits?” he said, smiling at the rows of silent congregants on the carpet. “They’re not here to arrest you. They’re my friends.”
“The essence of our mission is to keep people safe,” Abbate said. “And we do that fairly and equally for everyone under the Constitution of the United States.”
It was a nice gesture, some congregants said afterward, but it would have helped more if the message had come directly from the president.
Dar al-Hijrah’s 3,000 regular congregants hail from more than two dozen countries, including Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Iran — the countries targeted under Trump’s new travel ban.
The order is being interpreted at this mosque the same way it has been by civil rights organizations and in other Muslim communities across the country: as a ban on Muslims and, more broadly, as a statement that Muslims are not welcome in the United States.
“Nobody has the feeling that because my country is not on the list that I’m safe,” Abdul-Malik said. “The feeling that they have is that ‘because I’m Muslim, the ban is going to affect me.’ ”
To Abdul-Malik, that means the threats carry extra weight; an added likelihood that someone might act.
Few mosques are as vigilant as Dar al-Hijrah, where guards and security cameras keep watch 24 hours a day. A perimeter fence has provided an extra barrier since 2015, when people with bullhorns showed up and began to shout slurs at families as they entered the center in the wake of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., that killed 22 people and was carried out by a Muslim couple. The San Bernardino couple had no connection to the mosque.
Dar al-Hijrah is one of the largest and most politically active mosques in the country, and its address and phone number are easy to find in a Google search. So, too, is the conspiracy website that describes the mosque as a front for terrorists, and the blog post by a man who claims to have conducted “researches” at the mosque and uncovered “violent materials.”
Dar al-Hijrah has fought for 15 years to scrub its legacy, after FBI agents found that two of the 9/11 hijackers, as well as Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, had worshiped there. The imam at the time, Anwar al-Awlaki, left the mosque and went on to become a proponent of extremist ideology from a hideout in Yemen; he was later killed in a U.S. drone strike.
None of the callers to the mosque ever seem to mention these things. Often it feels more as if they are reacting to a terrorist attack that has just occurred 3,000 miles away, or to something they saw on the news the night before, said Colin Christopher, the mosque’s director of government affairs.
Often, it seems as if people just want to call a mosque, and Dar al-Hijrah is the first thing that comes up.
Several days after the deadly 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris — and after a man, reacting to those attacks, had burst into Dar al-
Hijrah’s lobby and told people to leave the country and to accept Jesus — the mosque suffered hundreds of dollars in damage when someone tried to break through the gate in the middle of the night and tossed two smoke bombs and a molotov cocktail over the fence.
None of the threats during the past year have materialized into violence, but those at the mosque fear someone one day might again take it a step further.
It’s awful to know that you’re hated by some people, Elsayed said. But he has come to expect such things. “That’s a sad statement, but it’s true.”