As It Happens

Arkansas mosque forgives, pays fine of man who defaced its walls

In 2016, three Arkansas men vandalized a local mosque with racist graffiti. Recently one of these men was facing years in prison for failing to pay the fine for that crime. But then the mosque cut him a cheque.
The Masjid Al Salam Mosque in Fort Smith, Ark., was the target of vandalism in October 2016. (Google Street View)

Story transcript

In 2016, three Arkansas men vandalized a local mosque with racist graffiti. Recently, one of these men, Abraham Davis, was facing years in prison for failing to pay the fine for that crime.

That's when the community from the same mosque cut him a cheque.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Dr. Louay Nassri, president of the Al Salam mosque in Fort Smith, Ark., about why he decided to forgive Davis and handover $1,700 US.

Dr. Nassri, why did your mosque decide to pay the fine for Abraham Davis?

Well, it's because he was sentenced to six years suspended. So he did his community service and he started paying the fines every month and then we heard that he and his family are having financial stress and actually they were evicted from their house and we didn't want him to go to prison for six years for his mistakes. So we decided in the mosque to pay his fine.

But he did the crime. Why not do the time? 

Because first of all, he sent us a very sincere letter of apology. And his brother told us very clearly that he was not the instigator, and he showed clear remorse and apologized sincerely. So we forgave him. And like anybody who does something bad to you, and then he apologizes you'll forgive him. It should be over. It should not be hanging over his head for the rest of his life.

Dr. Louay Nassri is the president of the Al Salam mosque in Fort Smith, Ark. (Submitted by Louay Nassri)

Can you just take us back to what happened in October 2016? This is when you came to the mosque. What did you discover that day?

Other members of the mosque came early in the morning for the morning prayer and they found that there was a whole lot of Swastika signs all over the mosque, and there was foul language: I mean really foul language and, "Go home. We don't want you here." And that was all over the walls and the signs and everywhere.

You came to the United States from Syria many years ago. You've built a life for yourself. How did you feel when you saw that?

I was extremely surprised because for the last 37 years that I've been in Fort Smith; I have never seen anything but kindness, friendliness, acceptance [and] appreciation. And I thought regardless of all the Islamophobia that's being stirred up the by the election ... this cannot happen in Fort Smith, not in Arkansas. But it did happen.

So I had two feelings. One, is I was surprised that it happened. The other is I thought, "Okay, ... some young people did this because two things: one, they are uneducated. Second, there was no communication between us and these guys. If we had known that they were in trouble or if they had known who we are, this wouldn't have happened."

19-year-old Craig Wigginton (L) and 20-year-old Abraham Davis (R) were being held on a felony charge of first-degree criminal mischief. (Fort Smith Police)

Was that your immediate thought or did that come after this letter that the young man wrote to you from jail?

No. It was immediate. No, it was not from the letter. The letter only gave us the impression that this particular person one of the three was, he was not innocent but he apologized. He showed remorse. So we accepted.

There was an article The New York Times wrote some months ago when this first happened. And they described how this young man, no one told him to write that letter. It wasn't some condition of his release.

Correct. That's correct. So when his brother Noah came to the mosque and took off his shoes it was very proper and [he] gave me the letter from his brother, apologizing. It was then that we forgave him.

But I mean really, at the time that we did this, we didn't think that it was something unusual. We thought this is what anybody should do if somebody does something bad to you and apologizes. You'll forgive him. And go on.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Louay Nassri, listen in the player above.