Muslims Get Threats, Support 

Wearing white armbands, citizens join in solidarity to protect mosque

click to enlarge Islamic spokesman Arshad Yousufi - SUNNIE SACKS

When the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs reported harassing phone calls and threats that the city's only mosque would be vandalized or destroyed, the Colorado Springs Police Department told them there wasn't much they could do.

So an interesting combination of supporters -- Libertarians, pagans and members of the Pikes Peak Interfaith Council -- banded together to protect the mosque last Friday in a display of solidarity.

Immediately following last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Muslims around the country began reporting being the targets of threats and hostility -- and Colorado Springs was no different.

Last Wednesday, a man approached a worker who was laying carpet at the mosque, on North Chestnut Street, and told him to get out of the building because it was about to be burned down, said Farouk Abushaban, a past president of the Islamic Society. More messages warning of violence were left on the society's voice mail.

A few Colorado Springs residents of Middle Eastern ancestry have reported being harassed, said Arshad Yousufi, another past president of the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs.

One woman, he said, reported that while she was out shopping with her children last week, a man began verbally abusing her inside a store. When the woman left the store, she was chased through the parking lot and the assailant beat on her car with his fists after she had locked herself and her children inside.

"It's a frightening situation, especially if you're there with your little children," said Yousufi.

The work of crazy people

Since the threats were publicized, Yousufi said, there's also been an outpouring of public support, and well-wishers have brought flowers and boxes of cookies to the mosque. The Muslim community in Colorado Springs is small, and about 200 people attend mosque services.

"[The support has been] mostly from people who are saying, 'We believe in God, and we know this isn't Islam and that you don't support terrorism' and that was a pleasant surprise," Yousefi said. "Usually the supportive people don't speak up."

The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Yousufi said, were the work of crazy people. Westerners often tend to lump Middle Easterners together, he pointed out, but he likened the hijackers to the Muslim equivalent of how most Americans view our own home-grown extremists.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with victims," he said.

When they received the threats at the mosque, Islamic Society members filed a report with the Colorado Springs Police Department, Abushaban said. Fearing violence during their regular prayer service last Friday, they asked for a police presence and were denied.

"Initially [the police] did say that that didn't have the manpower to be present during our services," said Abushaban.

Yousufi said the society understood, but they were alarmed about their safety.

"When we reported [the threats] we asked for security because our main concern was not the building, but what if some crazy guy starts shooting and we'd end up with some dead people?"

In addition, calls to private security companies were not immediately returned to the Islamic Society, Abushaban said.

Armed with a quarterstaff

The group later invited Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace and members of the City Council to their Friday prayer service and, at that point a police officer was dispatched to stand guard during the service. Makepeace and several City Council members attended Friday's prayer service to show their solidarity and support to the Muslim community.

But before the police department assigned an officer, a group of citizens mobilized and vowed to stand guard at the mosque.

"When they failed to get any support from the police for their Friday service, we made a promise that he and his people would not be standing alone," said Jim Taylor, a member of the Pikes Peak Interfaith Council, a group that organized in the mid-1990s to promote tolerance between religious beliefs.

Taylor contacted a friend who's a member of the Earth Spirit Pagans. Members of the Libertarian Party of Colorado Springs also rallied and, last Friday, approximately 15 people showed up wearing white armbands. Taylor came armed with a cane and a quarterstaff -- a medieval weapon that resembles a long stout stave.

"When we got there, we were most relieved that a police car was already parked there," Taylor said. A fire marshall was also at the scene.

Expecting violence, the group of volunteer security guards fanned out around the building while the Muslims were inside praying. Islamic services consist entirely of prayers and so it wouldn't have taken much of a disturbance to disrupt the service beyond repair, Taylor said.

"Everyone in the neighborhood thinks highly of the Islamic Society," Taylor said. "They are very peaceful people who have absolutely nothing in common with the Islamic terrorists, just as Christians don't have anything to do with those who do terrorism in the name of Christianity.

"These are good people and they don't deserve to be terrorized."

During the service, Taylor said several cars circled the block several times, and a one man in a dark green pick-up truck yelled at the volunteers: "Who do you think you people are supporting?" he demanded.

To which Taylor and the others yelled back, "We're supporting the Constitution and freedom of religion!" and the man drove off.

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