A small town in West Virginia responds to anti-Muslim sentiment

After vandalism at the local mosque, community debates what constitutes a hate crime

The ISAR Islamic Center mosque in Princeton, W.Va.
Omar Ghabra

PRINCETON, W.Va. — On Dec. 16 of last year, Dr. Riaz Riaz drove from his home to his local mosque — a humble building nestled among the quiet foothills of the Appalachian Mountains — to perform his afternoon prayers. When he arrived at the Islamic Society of the Appalachian Region (ISAR) Center, he was shocked to find Islamophobic insults sprayed on the walls in bright red paint.

For Riaz and other members of this congregation, the incident brought back memories of a similar desecration that took place just after September 11, 2001. After the first incident, members of the Muslim community as well as the authorities felt the vandalism of the mosque clearly fit the definition of a hate crime. This time, however, Mercer County Sheriff Don Meadows told a local TV station the incident was not a hate crime because another act of vandalism had taken place nearby around the same date. (Multiple attempts to contact Meadows for comment on this story were unsuccessful.)

Ibrahim Hooper, the national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), disagrees with the sheriff’s assessment. “This incident is absolutely a hate crime,” he said. “You have people writing explicitly anti-Islam statements on a mosque. It’s the definition of a hate crime.” The federal government defines a hate crime as “a criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” The FBI is investigating the vandalism of the mosque as a hate crime. No suspects have been identified to date.

The fact that the mosque was targeted again more than 12 years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, combined with the tepid response of local authorities, has exacerbated the feeling that Islamophobia in the area is rising.

“This (crime) really hurts all of us because all of us feel that we are part of the American dream,” Dr. Abdul Piracha, another senior member of the community, said in a statement to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph immediately after the incident. “We have to stand up to this kind of thing. The last time this happened, after 9/11, the entire community came out to show their support.”

An unlikely home

The ISAR Center, with the painted-over graffiti.
Omar Ghabra

For the past several decades, the predominantly white West Virginia coal towns of Princeton and Bluefield, which have a combined population of about 16,000, have provided an unlikely setting for Muslim immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East. Many of them are physicians who moved to the area in pursuit of stability and prosperity. Like many other rural areas in the United States, southern West Virginia suffers from debilitating physician shortages, and immigrant doctors play an important role in filling this need. As word of the job opportunities spread to family and friends of those who were already settled, the Muslim community in the two towns steadily grew through the 1980s and ’90s. In the late ’90s, almost 50 families got together and constructed a mosque along the mountainous highway connecting Princeton and Bluefield, hoping to provide a permanent venue for the community’s religious and social activities. For nearly two decades, this mosque has been managed by the ISAR.

“This is our home,” said Riaz, president of the ISAR’s executive committee. “Many of us have been here for decades, and we fell in love with the area’s natural beauty and the courtesy of its people.”

The September 2001 incident left the mosque covered with swastikas, threats of retribution for the attacks and a depiction of an African-American man named Jamaal being lynched. At the time, local church and business leaders condemned the desecration and were involved in cleaning up the graffiti. Local religious leaders have been similarly vocal in denouncing this latest act. A statement signed by 12 pastors who lead churches in the area and a rabbi who leads the nearby Jewish congregation called local Muslims “pillars of our community” and stressed that “the (ISAR) Center has made a concerted and considerable effort to enhance our region.”

He believes the widespread myth of President Barack Obama’s being a Muslim is a significant contributor to this trend. Obama is very unpopular in the area.

Two months after the statement was released, however, a member of the mosque’s executive committee (who wished to remain anonymous) lamented the relative lack of tangible help that the community has received to clean up the graffiti. Although attempts have been made to wash the graffiti off, it is still visible on the building’s walls. “In 2001, there was a huge outpouring of support from the community, and everyone came together to help us restore our mosque. We haven’t seen that this time around,” he said.

The board member, who has lived and worked in the area for more than 30 years, attributes the different responses to the two incidents to what he believes is a worsening perception of Muslims in the area. “Things are definitely worse now than they were then,” he says. He believes the widespread myth of President Barack Obama’s being a Muslim is a significant contributor to this trend. Obama is very unpopular in the area. A 2008 poll found that more than a fifth of West Virginians believed Obama is a Muslim. However, he also stressed that local Muslims could do more to engage the broader community. “Part of this is our own fault,” he says. “Most of the members of our community are doctors. Why don’t we run a free clinic? Why don’t we have a pantry? This is a very impoverished area, and there’s so much more we could be doing to build bridges.” 

Islamophobia on the rise

“Homo,” “pedophile” and “666” spray-painted on the walls and door of the ISAR Center.

According to FBI statistics, hate crimes against Muslims steadily decreased after initially spiking post-9/11, but there has been a resurgence since 2010. Moreover, many Americans remain suspicious of their Muslim neighbors. A recent CBS poll found that 1 in 3 Americans believes Muslim Americans are more sympathetic to terrorists than other Americans. Another poll revealed that 42 percent of Americans believe Islam is “more likely than (other religions) to encourage violence among its believers.”

Hooper says it’s important to note that there are a large number of incidents that go unreported. “Most of the cases we get are the tip of the iceberg. A lot of people experience what they consider minor discrimination, and they say, ‘Well, that’s just life’ and move on, and they don’t report. We only hear about a minority of the incidents.” He points to a recent report issued by the CAIR that found 50 percent of Muslim students in California say they are bullied because of their faith. Fewer than a third of these students said they had reported being bullied to their teachers or school administrators.

Muslim students who attend or have attended public schools in the community served by the ISAR were not surprised to hear these statistics. One of these students, Imad (who was not comfortable providing his real name for this story), transferred to another school as a result of what he says was daily bullying because of his religious affiliation. “I was called a sand n-----, Osama — you know, the typical stuff — almost on a daily basis,” he said. “This was normal to hear from students, but what’s really shocking when I look back is that some of my teachers often were in on it. One teacher greeted me and my friend as ‘the local terrorist cell’ every time we walked into class.”

The ISAR Center mosque’s prayer room, or musala. The art on the wall is Quranic calligraphy.
Omar Ghabra

He said that when he moved to a new school in another region, no one would believe the stories he told about being bullied. “People had a hard time accepting that bigotry against Muslims was that widespread and out in the open.” Another local student recalled being slapped with slices of ham during lunch after explaining to his peers that it was against his religious beliefs to eat pork.

James White, who chairs the political science department at Concord University, a nearby liberal-arts college, believes these problems are largely a result of the area’s poor socioeconomic conditions. “Tolerance is related to education. Tolerance is related to income. It’s inversely related to age. You look at this area and you see that it’s more intolerant than the norm in America. That would be somewhat expected.” West Virginia has the lowest proportion of college-educated residents in the nation. It also has the third-highest median age and third-lowest median income in the country.

Though he concedes that the area is not particularly diverse, White said that local leaders choose to ignore diversity instead of celebrating it. This, he added, leads to bigotry directed at people from minority religions.

White’s opinion on this matter is shaped by his experiences. Two years ago, his son, who was about to graduate as valedictorian of his high school class, published an op-ed in West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, arguing against his public-school-graduation ceremony’s being held in a church, on the grounds that such a ceremony would be a violation of the separation of church and state. This prompted a negative reaction from the community, which overwhelmingly supported the decision to hold the graduation in a church. “There were people anonymously threatening to beat up this 17-year-old kid. It was absurd, ” White said.

His wife, Lynne White, served on the board of education, which controls many of the public schools attended by members of the ISAR community. Her experiences on the board during her eight-year tenure support her husband’s assessment. She was particularly troubled by a program that provides optional Bible classes during regular school hours in the local public schools. Though the program’s supporters claim it teaches the Bible from a purely historical and literary point of view and thus does not pose any constitutional problems, critics argue that it is a religious program that alienates non-Christian students. One Muslim student recalled being left alone in a room each week when all the other students attended Bible class.

Imad, who still has family in the area but rarely visits, says these types of incidents just push young people like him further from the community.

“I think a lot of us younger people just don’t feel comfortable there, and that’s why I, personally, would never live in that type of area again.” 

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