Arson strikes New Tampa mosque

“I’m not surprised,” thesis student Syed Saif Iqbal said in a phone interview after hearing that the mosque of his childhood was set ablaze. Iqbal awoke on Feb. 24 to news that Hillsborough County first responders answered a 2 a.m. call that the steps of The Islamic Society of New Tampa Masjid Daarus Salaam mosque, or “house of peace,” were aflame – and deliberately set on fire.

The fire caused the security company to alert Mazen Bondogji, a representative on the mosque’s board, who, upon his arrival to the scene, found first responders putting out a relatively small fire on the steps of one of the main entrances. While the fire did not cause any damage within the building, the heat triggered a sprinkler head near the door which set off the sprinklers throughout the building, causing thousands of dollars of water damage. The fire marshall and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives quickly identified the damage as a result of arson.

Thanks to recently added security, investigators were able to pull video footage from several exterior surveillance cameras. No information about suspects has been released, but the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is offering a $5,000 reward for anyone who comes forward with information that leads to an arrest.

The Islamic Society Of New Tampa (ISONET) is the legal entity under which Daarus Salaam Mosque operates. It is a nonprofit community organization dedicated to serving the religious, social and educational needs of the local Muslim American community in accordance with the Qur’an and Sunnah,” the mosque’s website reported.

That’s where my parents go, it’s literally a three minute drive from my house,” Iqbal said. “I grew up playing basketball, playing football and spending a lot of time at that mosque. It’s a pretty big mosque, too. It started off as just a small little house that someone happened to own […] and then they raised money a couple of years ago and built a really nice mosque. But because there were so many people attending Friday prayer every week, they built this [the current] mosque and now it’s already at the point where it’s not even enough to accommodate the community because there’s just so many people moving to the area in North Tampa.”

Despite spending so much time at the mosque and with the community, Iqbal was not shocked, but slightly surprised, when he heard the news.

“I saw it on facebook,” he said. “I woke up really early because I had to catch a flight to D.C. and I was just checking my phone and that was the first thing I saw. I was just scrolling through my newsfeed and saw articles about a mosque that was firebombed and I [didn’t really react] but then I was like, ‘Oh shit, that’s in my backyard.’”

Because the incident is so close to home for Iqbal, a lot of people are concerned. “I have a lot of people reaching out to me, saying, ‘Oh, I heard what happened at your mosque, I’m so sorry that happened, if you ever need someone to talk to, or need some love […]’ and it was just frustrating for me because, A) I’m not surprised and B) Yeah, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about, but at the same time it’s something that I’m always thinking about,” Iqbal said. “I wasn’t even like, ‘Oh my god! My mosque got set on fire!’ I was like, ‘Oh, of all the mosques in Tampa, this one had not been a victim of a hate crime yet.’”  

Just seven months before the The Islamic Society of New Tampa mosque was targeted, a string of fires at Tampa mosques also erupted, with two of the five declared arson.

Similarly to those, the community response to this incident was noteworthy. Within a couple of hours, a campaign “To Stand With New Tampa Muslims Against Hate” was initiated by Adeel Karim on the platform Launchgood, a site similar to GoFundMe but instead dedicated to “crowdfunding incredible Muslims worldwide.” The funding goal is set at $40,000, but the campaign has now raised over $70,000. Among the contributions, Iqbal recognized an intriguing pattern.

“The increments of the donations were really interesting. So many people were giving in increments of around $16 or $18,” he said. But it was not just a coincidence.

“I couldn’t understand why people were donating in what seemed like weird amounts to the cause. There are sums of 18, 36, 72.00 dollars etc. [but] then I figured it out […], Jewish people donate in multiples of 18 as a form of what is called “Chai”. It wishes the recipient a long life. You learn something new every day. The Jewish faith has shown up in force to support our New Tampa Islamic community. I’m floored. #chaidelivered,” Karim said in a Facebook post.

Although the community has responded well, Iqbal is holding Donald Trump accountable, rightfully.

In the past seven weeks, mosques across the country have been targets of hate crimes, along with Jewish community centers experiencing record breaking numbers of bomb threats.  

Since Trump started running for office, you can see a direct correlation between his rhetoric and the increase in hate crimes,” Iqbal said. “And it continues and he does absolutely nothing to address it. He just pretends it’s not happening. Which is really frustrating because he’s our president too. As much as we hate him, he is our president. People that you represent are being shot and killed. People that you represent and their places of worship are being set on fire and you don’t have anything to say about this at all?”

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