Online attack creates fake website defaming Chicago-area mosque

Attack falsely links Wheaton mosque to ISIL, mocks Christian professor who wore hijab to show solidarity with Muslims

A screenshot from the Islamic Center of Wheaton's real website telling visitors of the fake page.

A Chicago-area mosque said Monday that it has fallen victim to an Islamophobic cyberattack in which unknown perpetrators created a fake website for the place of worship, attempting to link it to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The Islamic Center of Wheaton (ICW) said it had contacted local law enforcement and the FBI in an attempt to find out who set up the fake page, which mosque administrators say aims to harass the mosque and undermine efforts to create interfaith dialogue. In one photo allegedly lifted from the real site, images of ISIL fighters and flags were superimposed over photos of mosque members and visiting supporters, including small children.

“They’re being very aggressive against Muslims and Islam, and it’s also against people of faith willing to have a dialogue with Muslims,” said Abraham Antar, president of ICW.

The mosque said the fake website includes threats to forcibly convert the Wheaton community to Islam, as well as insults against the Prophet Muhammad. The site’s discovery comes amid a wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric, and an increase in physical attacks on mosques and Muslims in the United States.

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a legal advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said online statements against Muslims and Islam form part of a breeding ground for hateful acts offline.

“The Internet is really the cesspool of Islamophobia. That’s where it all starts,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of CAIR’s Chicago branch. “Islamophobia is more acute online than anywhere else, and in many ways the typical, big anti-Muslim narratives are born online and they spread from there to political circles and onto the streets.”

In 2014, legal aid group Muslim Advocates published a report detailing a range of online anti-Islam groups, listing dozens of websites and Facebook pages. The report provided guidelines for how to report violent hate speech to law enforcement authorities, and harassment to social media site administrators. The study said that reporting the abuse helps administrators gauge the size of the problem. 

"A person spreading hateful rhetoric online may have no intent of committing an act of violence, but it only takes one person to become motivated to commit an act of violence," said Madihha Ahussain, a staff attorney at Muslim Advocates.

Rehab said that the best way to combat online Islamophobia in most cases is to ignore the aggressor — but that fake websites cross the line, because they can put lives at risk.

“Who knows what kinds of vigilantes will retaliate using these false allegations against the mosque?” he said. “There is the intent to cause harm and potentially bodily harm.”

Wheaton recently garnered national focus when Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor at the evangelical Christian school Wheaton College, started wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women. Hawkins, a Christian, also emphasized that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

The college has since moved to terminate Hawkins, prompting students and fellow educators to rally in support of the tenured professor. One section of the fake website features pictures of Hawkins, and mocks efforts at interfaith cooperation.

Rehab said the website’s goal appears to be derailing dialogue between religious groups and promoting a false image of Islam in the community. He said Muslims need to use their freedom of speech to present their true beliefs.

“Muslims need to use their own voices to represent their values,” Rehab said. “Every case is it’s own case. You have to weigh the cost/benefits. If it’s just a harmless troll, just ignore it. But if, as in this case, it has the potential for bodily harm and putting children at risk, you need to take action.”

Antar at ICW said Wheaton officials have been supportive after Monday’s attack. 

"The police are even really very supportive," he said. "Now they’re increasing patrols around the center to make sure we're protected."

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