Islamic Center of the East Bay Rebounds Five Years after Arson
By Paul Burgarino
Antioch, CA: Sometimes tragedy can bring people closer together.
For members of the Islamic Center of the East Bay, that mantra has become a reality in the wake of an arson five years ago that destroyed the Antioch mosque.
The Islamic Center was rebuilt on the same location and opened in June 2009.
The group of about 200 Muslims has been embraced by other members of Antioch's faith community and civic leaders since the arson. In turn, the Islamic Center has been amenable to helping people learn and understand the faith.
"It's unfortunate that we had to go through all this, but there was a lot of goodness that came from it," said Mohammad Chaudhry, the founding president of the Islamic Center.
"The whole Antioch community stood by us and made us feel more comfortable. That helped a lot," congregation member Shaheena Jamal said following Jumu'ah, or Friday prayer.
There was some doubt about rebuilding in Antioch after the fire.
The Aug. 12, 2007, early-morning blaze left once-pristine prayer rooms scorched, as melted electrical wires dangled from blackened walls and carpets were soaked with water and ash.
"Somebody had burned our home. Of course there's going to be a lot of bad feelings," congregation member Shahbaz Abbasi said.
"I remember when that happened distinctly. I think we were all shocked and dismayed," Mayor Jim Davis said. "As a community we reached out to them right away."
The most troubling part for center members was that it fit a pattern of acts of vandalism and intimidation at the mosque dating back to Sept. 11, 2001.
Chudhry said the mosque had been tagged, broken in to and hit with gunfire earlier that year. Threatening phone calls and voice mails had been received on more than one occasion.
There had been a smaller, intentional fire set at the center in 2002.
Antioch police determined the 2007 fire was set intentionally and investigated it as a possible hate crime. No suspects have been arrested. The case is suspended pending further evidence, police said.
Events such as last week's fatal shooting of six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and the July shooting of dozens of moviegoers in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater remind Chaudhry and others of the apprehension members felt from the arson -- and still feel at times.
"Hatred has its root in misunderstanding, and the victim is harmony and peace," he said. "The ignorance of one person blocks the way to seeing good in others. But, religion is about how much good you find in others."
Adds Jamal: "The things that are happening all around America make you more cautious." She said there are times she is still afraid the Antioch mosque will again be targeted.
The community's immediate support compelled the Islamic Center to keep its roots at the West 18th Street location. That solidarity included an anti-hate march a month after the arson to show Antioch is a united community.
"I think it really helped the greater Antioch become aware of how diverse we are," said the Rev. Tom Bonacci of St. Ignatius Catholic Church. "I know I'm much more sensitized to it than ever before."
Bonacci, who heads the Interfaith Peace Project, says he's become good friends with Islamic Center leaders and they have stood together on issues such as working for the poor and needy.
Chaudhry said a new spirit of compassion, empathy and tolerance was gained through the experience.
"There was more sympathy and people were more helpful," congregation member Muhammad Sahail said.
City and regional leaders have joined in the center's Iftar, or fast-breaking meal at sunset, ceremony during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The center has also held open houses to share its faith and beliefs with the public.
"It's a case where good has come out of a bad happening," Davis said. "They didn't feel safe or welcome, but now they seem to feel welcome and are flourishing."
The new center suits the faith group's need better than before, Chaudhry said, because the inside is no longer divided like a dentist's office -- the building's previous use before purchased for a mosque in 1999. It features a separate hall for worship and one for community events, along with an expanded kitchen, a security system, surveillance cameras and a sprinkler system.
The number of Muslims in the East Contra Costa region is growing, evidenced by the rapid growth of the Brentwood Muslim Community Center, which opened in spring 2010. Some of the Islamic Center members now attend services there because it's closer to their homes, Chaudhry said.
Members of the Antioch congregation attended Friday's services more focused on completing the last 10 days of the holy month of Ramadan, rather than events of the past.
"Thankfully, we were able to rebuild. At least we still have our spot," Abbasi said. - - Courtesy Contra Costa Times