Maine mosque desecrated; xenophobes make excuses

From the New York Times, Sept. 5:

LEWISTON, Me. — On a hot July night, a few dozen Somali men were kneeling shoulder to shoulder in prayer at a storefront mosque here when the door opened and the frozen head of a pig, an animal considered unclean in Islam, rolled across the floor.

Men fled in fear. A child fainted. Some called the police and ran after the person who had rolled the head in. A suspect, Brent Matthews, was quickly apprehended and charged with desecrating a place of worship. Mr. Matthews, 33, said that the incident was a prank and that he did not know the significance of a pig’s head.

Now, weeks later, Somali leaders say the incident has left a scar on their community of about 3,000 immigrants.

While they admit the act was the work of one man, it has heightened simmering tensions in this overwhelmingly white, working-class city of 35,000, where Somali refugees started flocking about five years ago, after first settling in more urban areas of the United States. Many said they came here because housing was inexpensive and Lewiston seemed a safe place to raise their families.

While much of Lewiston has been welcoming, some Somalis here believe the head incident reveals an undercurrent of suspicion and lack of understanding about their culture. According to the Census Bureau, Maine is 96 percent white.

“We’re not saying all of Lewiston is part of this,” said Imam Nuh Iman, leader of the mosque, the Lewiston-Auburn Islamic Center. “But this is the biggest impact you can have on a mosque, in the time of praying, to put in a pig’s head. It could have been a goat’s head, or a cow’s head. But it was a pig’s head.”

Phil Nadeau, the assistant city administrator, believes the incident was isolated but underscored the growing pains this city — whose mills and shoe factories, now closed, welcomed French-Canadian workers a century ago — is now going through.

“I think it’s a reflection of where we are right now. There’s a small group of people that will never accept this type of change in their community, ever,” said Mr. Nadeau, whose French-Canadian grandmother spoke only five words of English. “The second wave of non-English speakers to Lewiston is now the Somali population.”

Hussein Ahmed, 31, said the mosque incident came as Somalis here felt that they had finally started to move on from a 2002 open letter written by Laurier Raymond, then the mayor, which asked them to stop other Somalis from coming to the city. Mr. Raymond contended in his letter that the city was “maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally.”

Somali leaders quickly condemned Mr. Raymond after the letter, saying he was “bent toward bigotry.” Mr. Raymond met with Somali leaders but did not apologize. Three months later, a white supremacist group held a rally in Lewiston but was overshadowed by a counter-rally that drew 4,500 people.

The incident with the pig’s head brought a similar response. About 150 people, including Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, and leaders of other faiths, gathered at a park shortly after the incident to condemn it and to support the Somali community.

“After we heard about what happened at the mosque, many of us in the local interfaith clergy group felt that an attack on anybody’s house of worship is an attack on all houses of worship,” said Rabbi Hillel Katzir of Temple Shalom Synagogue Center in nearby Auburn. “This is not O.K. This is not approved of by the majority of the community. He might think it’s funny, but the rest of us don’t, and it’s not acceptable.”

Mr. Ahmed, who spoke at the rally, said it affirmed his trust in residents of Lewiston. “The message was clear: they don’t tolerate hate,” he said.

Mr. Nadeau said that Somalis continued to flock to Lewiston, about 30 miles north of Portland, and that the city was struggling to find jobs for them. The city is also trying to educate residents about the Somali culture and Islam.

“There’s still a kind of unknown element relative to people’s familiarity with their culture and religion that is still being felt, even to this day,” Mr. Nadeau said.

Mr. Matthews’s lawyer, James Howaniec, said his client had intended to play a prank. Mr. Howaniec said Mr. Matthews got the head from a pig roast in June and had originally planned to use it for target practice. Mr. Matthews then decided to plant it outside the center, thinking it was simply a gathering place, the lawyer said.

“He did not know it was a place of worship,” Mr. Howaniec said. “There’s certainly nothing in the exterior of the dilapidated storefront that would lead anyone to believe it was a place of worship. He is insistent that he did not know the significance of a pig’s head to the Muslim community.”

Mr. Howaniec said that Mr. Matthews was trying to create a disruption at the center, but that it was not a crime.

“It’s our position that while it was an act of stupidity, it did not rise to the level of any sort of crime, let alone a hate crime,” Mr. Howaniec said. “It’s clearly not something he’s proud of, but as an attorney looking at criminal statutes, I don’t think it rises to the level of desecration of a place of worship.”

Judge Ellen Gorman of Androscoggin County Superior Court on Aug. 31. granted the state’s request for a temporary injunction, ordering Mr. Matthews to stay 150 feet from the mosque.

At the hearing Mr. Matthews said that he had planned to put the head outside “where the dark people congregate” as a joke, and that it had slipped from his hand and rolled inside. He said he felt bad about the incident and wished he “could turn back time.”

Mr. Matthews will be indicted on criminal charges Sept. 6, and Mr. Howaniec said he was expecting a jury trial. If convicted, Mr. Matthews could face up to a year in jail on the desecration charge and up to $5,000 in fines.

Imam Iman said he wanted his worshippers to feel comfortable where they lived.

“Most people feel welcome,” the imam said, “but after these incidents, not at all. Mainers have to understand that this is the new Maine.”

Speaking of pigs, the folks at NewsBusters: Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias have a whole page on their website taking umbrage at the fact that the New York Times would dare to portay the attack as racism (did you catch that “where the dark people congregate” line, guys?). “Naturally, there is not a single mention of just WHY people might be suspicious of Muslims in this day and age,” they write, going on to delineate news items such as the recent hit-and-run spree in San Francisco and the killings at the Seattle Jewish center. The problem with this particular shoe is that it always fits on the other foot. If you are going to justify desecrating mosques in the name of righteous white rage against (real or perceived) Islamist violence, you can just as well justify Muslim rage by pointing to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the post-9-11 sweeps, the “shock-and-awe” terror in Iraq, continued US underwriting of the occupation of Palestine—and the wave of xenophobic attacks on Muslims from coast to coast over the past five years.

See our last post on Islamophobia.

  1. Coward
    Mr. Matthews, 33, said that the incident was a prank and that he did not know the significance of a pig’s head.

    So our racist is also a coward, who doesn’t even want to admit what his motivations were. There’s a surpise. Nice to see his friends at Newsbusters exposing themselves, though.