Ahmed Elbenni

After New Haven Fire Department officials determined that a fire at Diyanet Mosque of New Haven last week was an act of arson, community members have organized in support of the affected community and the mosque’s reconstruction. On Thursday, hundreds of people of a variety of faiths gathered for a vigil held at the mosque.

The May 16 vigil was organized by the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Masjid Al Islam, Muslim Youth of Connecticut and MCCT, among other groups. The vigil featured speeches, songs and prayers, and brought together people from different faith traditions.

“Houses of worship… shall remain safe,” the crowd repeated together in a chant led by founder of Muslim Youth of Connecticut, Zain Seyal.

At the Thursday vigil, Ward 1 Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu ’19 read from a Facebook post that he posted on May 16 after hearing of the fire. In his post, he stressed the importance of Muslims becoming active in politics. He wrote that Muslim-Americans have been marginalized in the United States for as long as he can remember, adding that the City even forced the Diyanet Mosque to reduce the size of its minarets because they did not abide by the city’s “outdated zoning laws.” He also added that the City does not recognize any Muslim holidays.

“A day will come when my Muslim brothers and sisters across the country will hold enough political clout to no longer be ignored by our leaders. Until then, Ramadan Mubarak,” Catalbasoglu wrote in the post.

On May 12, a fire broke out in the mosque — one week into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — and New Haven fire officials responded to fire alarms at around 4 a.m., according to the New Haven Fire Department twitter. One day later, New Haven Fire Chief John Alston publicly announced outside of the mosque that the fire was intentionally set, and that a federal investigation has been opened. The Diyanet Mosque, which is located on Middletown Avenue, is owned by the Turkish-American Religious Foundation, according to the New York Times.

The Muslim Coalition of Connecticut, which co-organized the vigil, issued a statement on May 13 condemning the intentional burning of the mosque.

The freedom to worship in a mosque, church, synagogue, or temple must be protected from fear, intimidation, and violent acts. All of us have a stake in this, no matter the faith tradition,” the statement wrote.

A Launchgood campaign was created the day after the arson by Lisa Kinney-Bajwa, a fellow at Timothy Dwight college and a local business owner. According to the campaign, the damage caused by the fire amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The money raised will go towards repairing the mosque and opening its doors back to the community, according to the campaign’s description. As of May 18, the campaign had raised over $173,000 dollars.

In a statement on May 14, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services wrote that the refugee resettlement agency is “deeply saddened that the Diyanet Mosque of New Haven was set on fire in an act of hate.”

The night before the fire, Sumiya Khan — co-founder and kitchen program manager of Sanctuary Kitchen at CitySeed, which partners with immigrant and refugee chefs to build community, host events and offer catering services — visited the mosque for the first time with her children to break the daily Ramadan fast with the Turkish community.

“It profoundly saddened me that something like this can happen in New Haven where my experience, and the experience of the refugees and immigrants I work with through Sanctuary Kitchen, has always been a welcoming one,” Khan said.

Zareena Grewal, associate professor in American Studies, religious studies and ethnicity, race and migration at Yale, learned of the fire when she was preparing dinner for her family to break fast. When she found out that the fire was the product of arson, “[she] was horrified and, frankly, terrified but, sadly, not shocked,” she said.

Earlier that day, Grewal said that she had learned of a racist incident of intimidation at a mosque community outside of Detroit where she grew up.

“So there is a national pattern, and we are only in the first week of Ramadan,” Grewal told the News. “It feels like it is going to be a long month.”

When Martin Nguyen, associate professor of religious studies and director of Islamic studies at Fairfield University, heard the early reports of the fire on Sunday, which offered scant details, he immediately thought of his last visit to that mosque on March 22. He told the News that he remembers the day well because it was exactly one week after the Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand.

“While I was sitting for the Turkish-language sermon at the Diyanet Mosque I could not help but think of how the tragedy in Christchurch signaled that the violence of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate could transpire anywhere. It was especially poignant, then, when I heard about this fire so many weeks later,” Nguyen said.

Though he had hoped that the fire was the result of an accident, rather than something more malicious, he said that the possibility of arson persisted in the back of his mind as a more likely possibility given the “steady rise in anti-Muslim animus nationally, and arguably globally,” He called the fire “a terrible blow to the community.”

Khan, Nguyen and Grewal all expressed their support for the Launchgood campaign to raise funds to rebuild the mosque.

“The Diyanet community is overwhelmed by this heinous crime, but also by the outpouring of support from New Haven and beyond,” Khan said.

Grewal also added that community members should share news coverage and spread awareness that “here in our sanctuary city Muslim communities, whether they are immigrants or not, feel vulnerable and on guard and unsafe during our holiday season.”

Grewal said that sometimes when an immigrant community is attacked, there is a “blame-the-victim” narrative that suggests that if the community “were not so closed off and insular and had just ‘gotten to know the rest of the community’ or been friendlier such things would not happen.”

But Grewal pushed back against this narrative. She told the News that the affected community has “bent over backwards” to be open and welcoming to all, including hosting public, free Ramadan feasts prepared by local Turkish restaurants, along with festivities like inflatable bounce houses, on the West Haven Green. Grewal said that her family and friends have enjoyed the hospitality of the community many times.

“The public Ramadan feasts are one highly visible example of many of their community outreach initiatives but it goes to show that no matter how hard you try demonstrate your investment in your local community it will never make you immune from the violence of those who insist you are a fifth column and outsiders,” said Grewal.

According to the New Haven Independent, since the fire, community members have continued to gather at the mosque for prayers.

Sammy Westfall | sammy.westfall@yale.edu