Hate at an Arkansas Mosque, Part 1: The People

 

To the Teacher:

In this activity, students consider what happened after a mosque in Fort Smith, Arkansas was defaced. They will explore the personal stories of people in the community, including those targeted by the attack, through information gleaned from this New York Times story by Sabrina Tavernise about the incident and its aftermath.  
 


 

Gathering


 


Share with students that beginning with the presidential election campaign last year, hate crimes against Muslims – and people perceived to be Muslim -- have been on the rise across the U.S.
 
Explain that today, we’ll learn about and discuss one particular incident that took place in Arkansas, and what happened afterwards.
 
Show students the tweet pictured above.  Ask students to share a specific observation about the photo or the text of the tweet.
 


 

Introduction: An Arkansas Mosque is Vandalized
 

Read to students the following news story from AP, which appeared on October 20, 2016. (Alternatively, show students this local Fox News report.)

“FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) - Police in Fort Smith say vandalism has been found on a mosque and Islamic center in the western Arkansas city.  Sgt. Daniel Grubbs says the messages found Thursday morning on the Masjid Al Salam Mosque and the Fort Smith Islamic Center include profanity, phrases such as "Go Home" and "Go Back to Your Country" in addition to swastikas.  Grubbs says police are searching for three men seen shortly after 5 a.m. apparently spray-painting signs, a door, windows and a garage.  Grubbs said the vandals could face charges of harassment and criminal mischief and that the FBI is joining the investigation.  Mosque member Hisham Yasin told KHBS-TV that plans are to clean off the building on Friday.”

 
Invite students to reflect on this news report by asking some or all of the following questions:
 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this report?
     
  • Who was impacted by the vandalism?
     
  • How do you think the various parties to the vandalism felt?
     
  • What do you think might motivate a person to do such a thing?
     
  • What do you think the consequences should be for the people who vandalized the mosque? If students are familiar with restorative practices, ask: What would a punitive consequence look like?  What would a restorative consequence look like?
     
  • How does this connect to the larger discussion about hate, intolerance and racism in the U.S. today?

 



 
About the Al Salam Mosque Community

 
Split your class into three groups, providing each group with one of these Al Salam Mosque member bios, adapted from a story in the New York Times.  (The text of each handout is also included below.) 
 

 
If your class is particularly big, split the class into six groups so that you have two groups dedicated to each of the bios. 
 
Invite the students in each group to read the bio they were assigned and discuss the questions at the end of their handout. 
 
Next, ask the students to come back together in the full group and invite a student from each small group to introduce their Al Salam Mosque member and share highlights from the discussion that took place in their small group.
 
When each group has presented, ask some or all of the following questions:
 

  • What did you learn about some of the Muslim community members in Fort Smith?
  • How do you think they might they respond if faced with the people who vandalized their mosque with hateful symbols and messages?

 


 

 Al Salam Mosque Bios 


Hisham Yasin is a 39-year old Muslim resident of Fort Smith. He grew up poor, but after moving to Arkansas in 1996, he built up a successful used-car business with his brother.  He now lives comfortably in a big house on the edge of town with his three children, who have what he calls a “five-star-life.” Hisham was one of the founders of Al Salam Mosque and continues to be a board member. 
 
On October 20, 2016, Hisham rushed to the Al Salam mosque, not for his morning prayers, as he might have done on other mornings, but carrying a gun after having received a distressed phone call from the mosque’s imam (or prayer leader).  As Hisham pulled into the mosque’s driveway, he saw a swastika on the mosque’s curbside sign and writing on the building: “Go Home” and “We Don’t Want You Here U.S.A.” And there was more.  The vandals had written profanities about Islam and Allah (God) and a phrase in Latin: “Deus Vult,” which he found out later was a rallying cry used during the Crusades meaning, “It is God’s will.”
 
Hisham was profoundly hurt.  These vandals didn’t understand how America was the only home he had ever known.  As a Palestinian refugee living in Syria, he had been stateless. America had given him a country. It had given him dignity when he traveled with his American passport to places he’d been banned from before. When they saw his passport, people at the border would stand up straight and say, “Welcome Mr. Hisham!”
 
At the mosque that October morning, Hisham sprang into action. He called the police.  He called the mosque’s board members and he called the media. By early afternoon the story was breaking in the news. 
 
And then something wonderful happened:  Churches called. A synagogue called.  Buddhists called. So did residents who’d seen the news or simply drove by and saw the vandalism for themselves.
 
The mosque was inundated with cards and letters.  Some even sent flowers.  People reached out from as far away as Reston, VA.  Hisham was overjoyed. 
 
 
Discuss the following: 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about Hisham’s experiences?
  • How do you think Hisham felt about what happened to the mosque? 
  • How do you think the reaction to the vandalism from churches and others in the community affected Hisham?
  •  If you were to describe Hisham using a word or two, what would they be?

 


 
 
Anas Bensalah, who is from Morocco, moved to Fort Smith in 2000 to attend college. He fell in love with a local woman, who was white and Christian. The two got married, even though her family refused to accept Anas.  At the time, Anas believed he wasn’t accepted because of his skin color. But looking back, he now thinks religion probably had something to do with it as well. His wife’s family asked her why she “wasn’t marrying her own kind.” “White women are supposed to marry white men,” they said.
 
When Anas’s wife was in the hospital giving birth to their first child, her relatives stopped him from entering the building. Pleading with them outside, he says was one of the worst experiences of his life.  He was not able to be with her when she gave birth to his son. “I saw the power of anger and ignorance,” he said.
 
Determined, Anas wore down his in-laws with his wit and generosity. He kept at it and even helped one of his in-laws recover from a drug addiction.  
 
Anas Bensalah is a member of the Al Salam Mosque in town. He took the day off to help with the clean up after vandals defaced the mosque in October 2016.  He spoke of the racist symbols used in the attack:  “A swastika is a small act of terrorism if you think about it.” He added, “it’s scary.” Anas said that the symbols had their desired effect on the Muslim community because they were racist and threatening.  Simple insults would not have gotten people’s attention in the same way.
 
On the day of the clean up, Anas spoke to a man who called him, crying. The man explained that the vandals could not have been Christians, because no true Christian could have done this. Anas told him he could relate:  that is exactly how he feels every time there is an attack by Islamic State. 
 
 
Discuss the following: 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about Anas Bensalah’s experiences?
  • How do you think Anas felt about what happened to the mosque? 
  • What did Anas mean when he told the man who was crying that he felt the same way whenever there was an attack by the Islamic State?
  • If you were to describe Anas Bensalah using a word or two, what would they be? 

 




Dr. Hania Al-Shahrouri, is a member of the Al Salam mosque in Fort Smith.  After the vandalism at the mosque in October 2016, she has started speaking to local audiences about Islam.  She is a kidney specialist from Jordan.
 
As a Muslim woman in the U.S., Hania says she has gotten used to people staring at her because of her head covering. She feels that wearing the Muslim head covering, known as a hijab, in the United States is as much an act of bravery as it is an act of faith.
 
When people stare at her, Hania Al-Shahrouri tells herself that it’s because they think she’s pretty, or because they like the color of her hijab. At the same time, she is concerned that her children (including her 13-year-old daughter) may not have the self-confidence needed in such situations.
 
Hania does what she can to protect them.  She uses her status as a doctor and her wealth; she drives a Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle and carries an expensive hand bag.  She doesn’t like that she has to do these things, but she knows that money often commands respect. In some ways, the Muslims who are better off are spared the bigotry that many poorer Muslims face.
 
Hania Al-Shahrouri loves the United States. There may be bigotry, but she believes the system to be fair. She illustrates this by talking about a time she entered a kidney transplant ward in 2004 with her medical team.  A patient’s wife ranted and raved that Dr. Al-Shahouri would kill her husband “like they killed us on 9/11.”  The doctor in charge of the medical team, warned the woman that if she wouldn’t let Dr. Al-Shahouri treat her husband, no one else would. The medical team walked out of the patient’s room. 
 
Discuss the following: 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about Dr. Al-Shahrouri’s experiences?
  • Why does she say that wearing a hijab is as much as an act of bravery as it is an act of faith?
  • How do you think Dr. Al-Shahrouri felt about what happened to the mosque? 
  • If you were to describe Dr. Al Shahrouri using a word or two, what would they be? 

 


 

Abraham Davis and Kristin Collins bios

 
Give students the next two handouts with bios of Abraham, who was one of the young men who acted to deface the mosque, and Kristin, his mother. Give Abraham’s bio to half of the class and  Kristin’s to the other half.   The bios are adapted from a story in the New York Times.  (The text of each handout is also included below.)  

 
After reading their bio, invite students to turn to someone who read a different bio to talk about what they’ve read. Invite them in pairs to discuss what struck them about the bios, as well as the questions at the end of the bios. 
 
Finally, bring the group back together and discuss: 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about Abraham and his mother?
  • How did reading their stories affect how you see what happened at the mosque that night?
  • Knowing what you know now, what do you think should happen next? 

 




Abraham Davis is a 20-year old white resident of Fort Smith, Arkansas. On the night of October 19, 2016, Abraham Davis borrowed his mother’s white minivan and drove it to his friend, Craig Wigginton’s house, where the two proceeded to get drunk. Next, Abraham agreed to drive with Craig to the Al Salam Mosque. While Abraham stood watch in the driveway, his friend drew swastikas and wrote curses and threats on the mosque’s windows and doors.  As the news story of the vandalism broke the next day, Abraham watched the reports on his phone.  He was full of regret and felt terrible. In hindsight, he couldn’t even explain why he’d done it. 
 
Abraham had grown up in Fort Smith. His father was charismatic, but violent; he died when Abraham was 5 years old.  Abraham felt powerless and worked all his young life to overcome that feeling.  He grew up poor though he attended a high school on the wealthier side of town.  He was the kid who walked while others drove places. He had anger management issues. He got support for this problem in elementary school but as he continued on to middle and high school, he got into lots of fights and did poorly in school.  This didn’t seem to surprise his teachers or Abraham himself. He slept a lot in class, living up to the adults’ low expectations. He dropped out at age 18.
 
In Fort Smith, poorer families live on the north side of town, while wealthier families live to the south. Race followed the same pattern: The southern part of the city is mostly white. Over time, Latino immigrants settled in town, as did Vietnamese and North Indian communities. Muslims from different countries settled in Forth Smith from 1970s on.  Most white people didn’t know any Muslims in town.  Abraham did.  He went to school with Wasim Yasin.  The two often had lunch together and according to Wasim, “Abraham was a good guy.”  Abraham once told Wasim: “I’m with you, man. If anyone bothers you, just let me know.  I’m your friend.”
 
Despite the stories in the news about the vandalizing of the mosque, there appeared to be no follow up at first; no one was charged. But at night, Abraham’s dreams haunted him.  When the police finally came to arrest him four months later, he wasn’t surprised. He felt he’d been heading toward prison all along, though he hadn’t expected it to happen quite this way. This was not what Abraham had envisioned for himself, and he felt remorse for what he’d done.
 
Thinking back to that fateful night, Abraham realized that for all the regret and pain the vandalism had caused, the decision to do it had taken no time at all. Abraham and Craig had been drinking and talking about Islamic State (IS) the night they committed the vandalism. Craig was angry about American soldiers being killed and children dying. They had the impulse to retaliate. 
 
Abraham recognizes now how ignorant he and his friends were for lumping all Muslims together. He wishes he would have stopped it: “I wish I could go back in time and say, ‘Hey, dumbass, I’m the future you, and I’m telling you, don’t do this.’” Abraham’s  brother Noah drove him to the police station to turn himself in. On the way, they stopped by the family’s home so Abraham could say goodbye.  His mother was devastated and sobbing. Abraham described her “like a woman who had just got broken.” He thinks about her a lot. “It’s stuff like that that hurts you while you are in jail. You replay and replay. It’s torture on your mind.”
 
The family couldn’t afford the $1,580 for the bail bond, so Abraham stayed in jail until the case went to court.  It took a month for his mother, Kristin, to arrange her first visit with her son in jail.  They cried when they finally saw each other.  Kristin and Noah visited every Saturday after that.  Abraham had focused his whole life on being strong enough to protect his family, but in the end he realized that he was the one who had inflicted the most hurt on his family.  He felt a powerful urge to make things right.
 
 
Discuss the following questions: 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about Abraham’s experiences?
  • How does Abraham feel now about what happened to and at the mosque? 
  • If you were to describe Abraham using a word or two, what would they be?

 


 


Kristin Collins is a 45-year old mother of three who lives with her (second) husband in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  She has leukemia.  He has Parkinson’s. The family lives on the $1,700 per month they receive in disability insurance, which is supposed to support the family of five, including Kristin’s oldest child, Abraham Davis, and his younger brothers Noah Davis and Gabriel Collins. It is impossible for the family to make ends meet.  They owe several thousand dollars in back rent and their minivan needs repairs they can’t afford, so Kristin sometimes relies on church foodbanks at the end of the month to be able to feed her family.
 
Kristin has always known her two older sons to be different:  Noah, the middle one, was shy and sensitive and a hard worker. Abraham would escape into comic books and cartoons. Yet despite their differences, the two brothers were extremely close.  Abraham was also very protective of Noah, who was a frequent target for bullies.  He stood up for his brother from an early age, fighting kids who made fun of Noah.  His elementary school principal described him as having “a big heart and a short fuse.”
 
Abraham saw himself as “one of the outcasts” but he seemed okay with that.  He could be himself with a small, tight group of friends, one of whom was Craig Wigginton, a tall intense teenager, who lived in a small apartment across town. Craig had no easy life either, and the two boys bonded over that and helped each other out. Abraham thought Craig was extremely smart.  Craig, moreover, made Abraham feel good about himself.
 
But Craig also had a racist streak. He said things that made Kristin nervous. On the evening of October 19, 2016, Abraham asked to use the minivan to go hang out with Craig.  Kristin was reluctant to let him take the car because she knew it had problems she couldn’t afford to fix, but she let him anyway.  It would be four months before she found out what he’d done when he left with the minivan that night. 
 
On the night of February 17, 2017, the police came to the house with a warrant for Abraham’s arrest.  Abraham wasn’t home, so Noah went to pick him up in the same white minivan with which it all started.  Noah initially thought it was a case of mistaken identity.  He asked his brother what he’d done – what required a $15,000 bond?
 
Noah drove his brother to the police station to turn himself in. They first stopped by the family’s house so Abraham could say goodbye.  Kristin was devastated and sobbing. 
 
The family couldn’t afford the $1,580 for the bail bond so Abraham stayed in jail till the case went to court.  It took a month for Kristin to arrange her first visit with Abraham in jail.  They cried when they finally saw each other.  Kristin and Noah visited every Saturday after that.  Abraham had focused his whole life on being strong enough to protect his family, but in the end he realized that he was the one who had inflicted the most hurt.  He felt a powerful urge to make things right.
 
Discuss the following questions

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about Kristin’s experiences?
  • How do you think Kristin felt about what happened to the mosque? 
  • If you were to describe Kristin using a word or two, what would they be?

 


 

Abraham’s Letter
 

At the end of Abraham’s bio, we learned that he felt a powerful urge to make things right. While in jail, he decided to write a letter to his mom, explaining himself.
 
He also wrote the following letter to the members of the mosque:
 

Dear Masjid Al Salam Mosque,
 
I know you guys probably don’t want to hear from me at all but I really want to get this to y’all. I’m so sorry about having a hand in vandalizing your mosque. It was wrong and y’all did not deserve to have that done to you. I hurt y’all and I am haunted by it. And even after all this you still forgave me. You are much better people than I.
 
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and that is honestly really scary. But I just wouldn’t want to keep going on without trying to make amends. I wish I could undo the pain I helped to cause. I used to walk by your mosque a lot and ask myself why I would do that. I don’t even hate Muslims. Or anyone for that matter.
 
All in all, I just want to say I’m sorry.

 
Abraham did not know the mosque’s address so he sent it to his mom asking her to deliver it.  It was postmarked three days after his arrest.  Abraham’s brother Noah drove the letter to the mosque that Friday.  Dr. Nassri, one of the mosque’s leaders, received the letter and was moved by it.  No one had expected to hear from the vandals.  This came as a surprise. 
                                   
Invite student responses to the letter:
 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the letter?
  • Does this change anything for you? Why? Why not?
  • Do you think it changes anything for Dr. Nassri and the other members of the Al Salam Mosque?  Why?  Why not?
  • What do you think should happen next?

 


 

Closing
 

Invite students to reflect on the different responses to the vandalism we heard about in the story. What stands out for them? Why? They might consider:
 

  • Hisham, rushing to the mosque with a gun to protect the imam
  • the members of the mosque taking time to come together to help clean the mosque 
  • the outpouring from the community, including Christian and Jewish congregations in town
  • Anas Bensalah’s conversation with the Christian man who called the day after the attacks
  • Dr. Al-Shahrouri, who started speaking to local audiences about Islam
  • Abraham’s reflection on what he’d done and the letter that came out of that

  
 
See Part 2 of this series. In it, students learn about and discuss the aftermath of the event, which included an informal restorative process.