COACHELLA, California — Holy prayers at a mosque here on Friday were canceled with families gawking behind fire lines after discovering the front of their holy house had become one big fireball.
Late Friday night, authorities announced that they believe the fire was deliberately set, and the local branch of the FBI is investigating as a possible hate crime. In addition, a person of interest has been detained, but not identified. Members of the congregation are blaming GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump for setting the ugly tone that charred their house of worship.
The mosque began to burn at around noon where Jum’ah prayers were underway, sending at least four early-arriving Muslims and the imam fleeing for their lives. Luckily, nobody was injured.
One of them was a young, American worshipper who told his fellow congregant Salah Alwishah what transpired.
“He was inside with three other brothers and he heard a loud thud and the whole entrance and all the walls caught on fire,” Alwishah, 28, told The Daily Beast of the alleged arson attack as recounted by the American member of the mosque. “[The witness] was actually American and I’ve seen him praying there many times. He’s a brother.”
Alwishah then noted of the diverse mix of Muslims which includes blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians who attend events at the Islamic Society of Palm Springs.
In recent weeks, there’s been a surge of anti-Muslim incidents here in the United States. Buzzfeed tallies up 34 such ugly moments since the Paris attacks on Nov. 23. Data compiled by Council on American Islamic Relations revealed as many as 63 acts of vandalism and anti-Muslim sentiments against American mosques and Islamic centers in 2015, the highest since the group began tallying back in 2009, according to a CNN report.
And the Islamophobic provocations of Trump—who called this week for a ban on Muslim immigration—have made a nasty atmosphere even more toxic.
Apparently whoever wished harm on the Coachella mosque and its handful of faithfuls already praying inside claimed the front door was compromised. “Someone opened the front door and threw something in there and then shut it before it crashed,” Alwishah, who retold the attack as it was told to him by one of the surviving witnesses, said.
The edifice went up in flames “instantly.” “I was told the whole room was on fire and the walls were all on fire,” he said of his conversation with one of the survivors. “They got out immediately through the back door and called 911.”
Alwishah had showed up by this point with his six year-old son and his siblings and parents watching helplessly as the fire was quickly contained by responding Riverside firefighters less than an hour later.
“I thank God the prayer barely started,” the winded young Yemeni American told us. “The families got there and everybody just stood outside trying to figure out if everybody was okay.”
But that didn’t stem the agony. “We’re just working here in this community and being American and taking care of our families and then this has to happen,” he said. “Everybody is devastated about it.”
Alwishah posted on Facebook one video clip amongst a throng of press and police pointing his ire toward GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump as having the mosque’s soot on his hands. He posted the short video with the caption:
“Thanks Donald Trump… You brought problems to our own backyard—at Islamic Society of The Coachella Valley.”
And another succinctly states “Thanks Trump.”
Asked about blaming the candidate of the attack on his mosque Alwishah said that he was upset “because of what Trump said” but that he had calmed down and decided, “I’m just going to call it a hate crime.”
But the words that Trump slung this week didn’t help anybody. “It’s an insult that he wants to ban all Muslims from coming here,” the grocery store manager said. “Most of us are born here and most of us are American American. We just have our religion,” he said.
Alwishah is especially raw on the recent flame throwing incident because it was a second attempt to cause harm against his loved ones in just over a year where somebody pulled a “drive-by” striking the mosque and his uncle’s Mercury sedan.
“One of the bullets actually hit his car and this was during morning prayer.”
As early as 5 a.m, according to the police account of the gunfire attack targeting the same mosque back on Nov. 14, 2014.
And incredibly, despite the terrorizing incident, prayers amongst the congregation carried on yards away as their holy house, which doubles as a school on weekends, was still billowing smoke. “Even though we couldn’t go into the mosque we prayed in the street,” Alwishah said. “It was nice and interesting…God accepts you if you prayer outside or even in a car.”
His older brother Abdul Alwishah, 38, told us that his family of uncles and cousins have been loyal to the mosque for a long time. “We’ve been going there like 15 years,” he said. “Myself we are a peaceful people. The religion is about getting along with everybody with Christians and Jews.”
The burning of the Mosque appears to be part of a awful pattern of acts against Muslims. Some of the most notable of late include a pig’s head thrown at a Philadelphia mosque, or a bodega owner brutalized in Queens, New York just this week.
One thing is that the Alwishah family is doing is not letting whoever tried to turn their mosque into charcoal win. “We’re still normal,” Salah Alwishah explained. “Nothing has changed about how we live our lives and how we go about doing things,” he said. “God is our protector.”