On Sunday afternoon several hundred people crowded into the Islamic Center of the Shenandoah Valley to show support for two local institutions that were vandalized over the weekend. The event was organized and promoted on Facebook by City Council member Kai Degner in response to offensive graffiti painted on the exterior of the Islamic Center.
The graffiti, which was painted on Friday, consisted of obscenities, anti-Muslim statements, and male genitalia. Similar vulgarities were also painted at Redeemer Classical School and a local public high school over the weekend, though news of the public high school vandalism was not widespread at the time of the event.
The FBI has joined the Harrisonburg authorities in the investigation surrounding these crimes. Harrisonburg police say the three incidents appear to be related.
Many people from around the Shenandoah Valley attended the Sunday gathering, including a large EMU contingent. John Gullman, a junior at EMU, said he came to the event to show solidarity. “I came to show support for all people in Harrisonburg and to make it known that ignorance is not the norm here,” Gullman said.
Around 4:30 p.m., just as Harrisonburg law enforcement officials began removing the paint from the exterior wall of the building, the more formal part of the event commenced inside the mosque. The program consisted of a line-up of speakers representing various community groups speaking to the crowd about solidarity and forgiveness.
The event opened with a recitation from the Qur’an and its English translation. Following this, the President of the Board at the Islamic Center, Mohammad Afridi, thanked the community for coming to help lighten the burden of the incident.
Afridi recalled the support the Muslim community of Harrisonburg received after the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and likened Sunday’s event to that.
Afridi then extended an invitation to every person present, wecloming visitors to come and learn about the mosque. He stressed the mosque as a “center for learning.”
Brian Augustine, Chairman of the Board at Redeemer Classical School, spoke about the two acts of vandalism as chances to be positive. “Instead of fear, there is resolve,” Augustine said. “Instead of hate, there is love and fellowship.” Augustine quoted Luke 6 and stressed how sorely our world needs “the Golden Rule” today.
Several others, including Degner and former EMU President Myron Augsburger, spoke of building something good out of something destructive. “If we build bridges of love and reconciliation,” Augsburger said, “we will know a peace that will never come through the power and violence to which so many people turn.”
The final speaker, Executive Director and Founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Nihad Awad, drove from northern Virginia to speak at the event. Awad has been involved in reconciliation processes between American Muslims and their communities since 1994. Awad spoke of recently being in Joplin, Missouri, where a mosque was burned to the ground and how the local church took the Muslim community in. “We cannot allow extremists on either side to dictate the conversation, to tell our story,” Awad said. “You are here to send a powerful message of support.”
Before and after the speaker shared, the Islamic Center provided water and snacks for those who gathered, and the community members had the opportunity to look around the mosque and talk with each other. This mingling between people of different ethnicities, religions, and cultural groups had a profound impact on many attendees.
“This is a neat opportunity to interact with a part of the community I usually don’t see,” EMU Junior Andrew Hostetter said.
EMU Senior Hannah Richter remarked on the diversity of the group. “It’s amazing to see how many people I don’t know,” said Richter, “but this kind of event really unites. It makes you feel big and not alone. It’s great to see how close we actually are.”
The theme of the evening was one of hope. Ehsan Ahmed, a board member of the Islamic Center, said that the crime was “all wiped out” by this event. By the end of the evening, the graffiti itself was nearly all removed.
Abbas Rawoot, a member of the Islamic Center, was especially happy to witness such an event. “We should have BBC, Al Jazeera [here] to show the world how we do it in Harrisonburg,” Rawoot said.
Ryan Eshleman, Staff Writer