Authorities in Florida say arson is to blame for a fire at a mosque early Friday morning, marking the third time in less than a year that a Tampa-area Islamic center has been set ablaze.
Corey Dierdorff, spokesman for the Hillsborough County Fire and Rescue, told The Huffington Post that firefighters responded to an automatic fire alarm call at the Daarus Salaam Mosque, also known as the Islamic Society of New Tampa, shortly after 2 a.m. Friday.
Firefighters extinguished flames on the porch next to the mosque’s door. Radiant heat from that fire, Dierdorff said, caused the mosque’s interior fire sprinkler system to turn on, causing extensive water damage. There were also holes in the door’s shatterproof glass.
“Physical evidence led us to believe it was arson,” Dierdorff said of the fire.
“It is worrisome that our community have fallen victim of what appears to be another hate crime,” Wilfredo Ruiz, spokesman for the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement.
“This time another Florida mosque has been targeted in a crime that could have easily taken the life of any worshiper,” he continued. “Our prayers are with the New Tampa Mosque community; and we are grateful that nobody was physically hurt.”
Mosque members were unable to pray inside the building Friday.
“The anti-Islamic threats targeting our Muslim community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” Shakiel Humayun, one of the mosque’s parishioners, wrote in Facebook post.
CAIR-Florida offered a $5,000 reward Friday for any information leading to an arrest in the attack. The group’s executive director, Hassan Shibly, also called on President Donald Trump to speak out against what Shibly called a “terrorist attack.”
Trump’s presidential campaign, which trafficked heavily in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, corresponded ― perhaps not coincidentally, some researchers argue ― with a rise in hate crimes targeting Muslims across the U.S.
FBI statistics show that anti-Muslim hate crimes increased by 67 percent from 2014 to 2015. Also in 2015, according to CAIR, mosques were targeted for vandalism, arson and other types of destruction 80 times, a nearly 400 percent rise from the year before.
The number of anti-Muslim hate groups tripled in 2016, according to a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Earlier this week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer dodged a question about the rise in anti-Muslim hate groups, and instead talked about “Islamic terrorism.”
A week after Trump’s inauguration in January, a mosque in Victoria, Texas, was destroyed by fire. Investigators later determined the cause of the fire was arson. Earlier that month, police arrested a man for setting a Bellevue, Washington, mosque on fire. And in July and August, five Tampa-area mosques caught on fire. Authorities later determined the cause of two of those fires to be arson.
Dierdorff, of Hillsborough County Fire and Rescue, told HuffPost “we’re still in the very beginning stages of the investigation” and it would be “too premature” to determine whether the string of mosque arsons in and around Tampa are connected.
An online fundraiser has been set up to help repair the Islamic Center of New Tampa. By Friday evening, nearly $11,500 had been raised toward a $40,000 goal.