Late in the evening on Saturday November 14, the Peterborough Masjid Al-Salaam was set on fire. The ongoing police investigation claimed that the fire was set deliberately and the timing of the arson attempt, only a day after an attack on Paris by the terrorist group the Daesh (ISIS), has led authorities to consider this act a hate crime.
Trent University Professor of Mathematics Dr. Kenzu Abdella is the President of the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association (KMRA). Arthur spoke with Dr. Abdella about the fire and the place of Islam in Peterborough.
Dr. Abdella was called at 11 PM that evening by emergency services about the fire, less than an hour after he had left the mosque. When he arrived fire covered the entire front entrance.
“I really thought it was going to burn down to ashes,” he said. Entering the building after the fire was put out, the facility was entirely black from the smoke.
“It was really shocking…heartbreaking” The fire department estimated the damage at $80,000. Thankfully, nothing irreplaceable had been damaged. Calligraphy of Quranic verses remained intact and all of their holy books were safe. However, it was immediately clear that the facility would not be usable for weeks if not months.
As soon as the news of the fire reached the media, there was a national outcry and within hours donations and offers of help were pouring in. Members of the Peterborough’s faith community were quick to offer their facilities for the Muslim community.
“We could do all of our prayers at the United Church but we decided to use this opportunity to reach out and we move around from church to church for the next few weeks,” said Dr Abdella. The Beth Israel Synagogue will also be hosting the Muslim community for a Friday prayer.
“A Proactive Approach”
The mosque has been a hard won institution of the city’s Muslim community. It is a gathering place for the growing Muslim minority, which has struggled for inclusion and acceptance in our city.
There have been Muslim individuals and families in the area for a long time-it wasn’t until 2003 when the KMRA purchased a former church that the Muslim community had a regular place of worship. It is the only mosque in the region for a long way, and an important symbol of this community.
The community itself is very multicultural. Dr Abdella estimates that members of between 25-40 different nationalities congregate to worship together. It makes for a very positive atmosphere.
Dr. Abdella said, “When people come visit our mosque, they really feel attached to it because of the environment they find there. It’s not a mosque of any particular ethnic group.”
The welcoming and positive environment is something the community members carry forward in their
engagements with the larger Peterborough population. They often invite the public to their religious celebrations, like Eid–the feasts that surround the fasting period Ramadan, as a means of educating and reaching out to those who want to learn more.
They also regularly host open houses, write articles in newspapers, and try to teach the larger Peterborough community about the religion.
“We have had a very proactive approach to the community…Part of the reason that this type of incident happens is ignorance and misunderstanding. I think if you have an isolationist approach people will continue to misunderstand. The openness and dialogue is the only way to fight this type of bigotry.”