Muslim leaders call for meeting with police chief and board after mosque attack

Local Muslims are calling for a meeting with the police chief and the police's oversight board about combatting Islamophobia following an arson attack two weeks ago at the Ibrahim Jam-E Mosque in central Hamilton.

'I was born and raised in Hamilton and these kind of events make you feel that you’re a foreigner': Doctor

On the 15th anniversary of an arson attack at a Hindu temple in Hamilton, police investigated an alleged act of arson at a Hamilton mosque. (David Beatty/CBC)

Local Muslims are calling for a meeting with Hamilton's police chief and the police's oversight board about combatting Islamophobia following an arson attack two weeks ago at the Ibrahim Jam-E Mosque in central Hamilton. 

Even though the fire didn't cause much physical damage, Hamilton Muslims are feeling tense. 

Any time a place of worship becomes the target of a criminal attack, it creates fear which resonates across the community.- Catherine Martin, Hamilton Police Service

"This event did actually rattle us," said Raza Khan, a doctor who serves as the spokesman for the Muslim Council of Greater Hamilton, which held an emergency meeting after the attack.

"I was born and raised in Hamilton and these kind of events make you feel that you're a foreigner in your own country," Khan said.

Hamilton police, and local and provincial politicians, have denounced the attacks and tried to reassure local Muslims and public events and in the media in the weeks since.

Ibrahim Jam-E Mosque on King Street East near Sanford Avenue was hit by an arsonist on Sept. 14. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Police say they know incidents like these have ripple effects.

"Any time a place of worship becomes the target of a criminal attack, it creates fear which resonates across the community," said the police service's corporate communicator, Catherine Martin. "We are encouraged that citizens are reporting these incidents and Hamilton Police are committed to investigating them fully."

Last week, the mosque's imam, Ayman Al-Taher, said he's been encouraging his congregation to remain optimistic, and to remember that the "broader picture" in Canada is one of welcome and positivity. 

"We don't want these isolated incidents, even though they do exist, to ruin the bigger picture," he said.

'There is an element'

But the arson served as a notice that some people might associate all Muslims with radical groups like ISIS, also known as Daesh, Khan said.

"There is an element out there that are really quite intolerant of Muslims," he said. "They're taking what Daesh is doing and generalizing it" to apply to peaceful Muslim worshippers.

The council wants to express their support of police and educate them about Muslim faith.

But they also want to ask for increased protection – an increased awareness of the way local Muslims are feeling after the attack.

The service's deputy chief, Ken Weatherill, and its community relations coordinator, Sandra Wilson, attended the mosque's Friday prayers the week of the attack to reassure worshippers there, some who came from other mosques.

And Chief Eric Girt talked about the incident publicly at the screening of a documentary commemorating the anniversary of another religious hate crime, the arson at the Hindu Samaj on Sept. 15, 2001. The screening happened the day after the arson.

Late Sept. 14 members of the public saw man set a fire at the entrance to the Ibrahim Jam-E Mosque, police say. (David Beatty/CBC)

Khan said the community is seeking "greater understanding and reassurance on the chief's part that we want to be a valuable community partner for him," he said.

"In return – we want to see more cultural understanding and more respect, an appreciation of the contribution of peaceful Muslim citizens."

Khan said the request to speak with the Hamilton Police Services Board "to also express how this event affected us" and give a chance for the community to say "that we support them, we want to partner with them and we want to be protected as well."

Neither board chair Lloyd Ferguson nor vice-chair Madeleine Levy responded to a request for comment for this story.

'We were a bit surprised'

The fact that it took police a week to declare the episode a hate crime bothered the leaders at first.

"We were a bit surprised that the police were kind of delaying calling it as such," he said, but "we also appreciate that they can't just jump to conclusions "

Khan said there have been other examples in recent years of times the community has been bewildered by police not calling incidents hate crimes.

McMaster University students Danielle Wong and Brett Klassen say they witnessed what they believe to be a hate crime take place in McLaren Park in July. (Adam Carter/CBC)

He mentioned an incident where three people allegedly screamed racial slurs at a group of Somali children downtown in July.

Two people who witnessed the incident said at the time that the responding officers shrugged off their requests to have what happened investigated as a hate crime.

But eventually Hamilton police assigned the investigation to its hate crime unit.