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Henrico Islamic center grapples with discrimination

West End Islamic Center members sitting at a table with Governor
Members of the West End Islamic Center in Henrico County met with Gov. Glenn Youngkin at the end of Ramadan. (Photo: Crixell Matthews / VPM News)

Islamophobia is a growing problem across the country and the world, and experts say recent events in Virginia show the commonwealth still struggles to address this form of discrimination. 

During Ramadan last month, vandals desecrated the West End Islamic Center in Short Pump. It’s the second time in six months the same center was the target of Islamophobic attacks.  Members like Kashif Perwez, who serves as the center’s treasurer, said they’re increasingly worried about the safety of their community. 

“I don’t think [the attacks are] decreasing,” Perwez said. “This is a place of worship, so everybody should feel safe. You know, the last thing you want to worry about is safety in a place like this. You come to reflect and pray.” 

Experts agree with Perwez that rates of Islamophobic hate crimes have increased during the past year. 

Huzaifa Shahbaz is a senior researcher and advocate for the Council of American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights organization nationwide. He’s also the author of “ Still Suspect: The Impact of Structural Islamophobia,” which tracks complaints of Islamophobic treatment every year. According to this year’s report, there were 6,720 complaints of Islamophobic events last year in the States, 9% more than in 2020. In the DMV area — which includes Northern Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and Maryland — there were 1,408 complaints last year, down slightly from the previous year.

“We are increasingly seeing complaints of anti-Muslim discrimination and civil rights complaints,” Shahbaz said. “Of those [DMV-area] complaints, we found that 116 comprised harassment and hate crime complaints.” 

The  increase in complaints is due in part to the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in schools and workplaces, according to CAIR’s report. But historically, Shahbaz said those rates fluctuate with the political climate. 

“We've been documenting civil rights complaints since our founding of the organization back in ’95,” Shahbaz said. “Over the years, this has fluctuated depending on the political circumstances of our time.” 

However, if you look at the government’s reports on hate crimes in Virginia and nationwide, you might think that Islamophobia is a minor issue. For example, in 2020 the Virginia Crime Report included only two cases of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the commonwealth. Shahbaz said underreporting is an ongoing problem nationwide rooted in distrust between the Muslim community and law enforcement.

“There's a lack of trust Muslim communities have in law enforcement. And that's because American Muslim communities have historically been subjected to mass surveillance, to deportation, to illegal questioning and harassment by local and federal law enforcement with no sort of accountability in sight,” Shahbaz said. “This ultimately erodes the trust in law enforcement and results in severe underreporting of hate crimes and bias incidents.” 

Perwez said the graffiti that vandals painted on his community center contained obscene drawings. The building was also broken into and property inside was damaged. Both he and Shahbaz said the vandalism and burglary of a space where Muslims pray every week seems to be motivated by Islamophobia. 

“It definitely felt like a hate crime, you know, because you've come in and this is the one place you don’t expect that to happen. It’s a place of peace and worship and reflection, and you see the destruction and damage,” Perwez said. 

Matthew Pecka, a spokesperson for the Henrico County Police Division, said the department  has not classified the case as a hate crime. 

“The offenses being investigated may include both burglary felony and vandalism misdemeanor.” Pecka said. “This is not being investigated as a hate crime at this time.” 

This isn’t the first time the West End Islamic Center has been the target of a crime members  perceived to be anti-Muslim. Less than six months ago, on Thanksgiving, Perwez said the center was vandalized. Again, Pecka said the Henrico police did not investigate the event as a hate crime. 

That same year, Shahbaz’s report highlighted two other incidents in Virginia including an attempted stabbing at a mosque in Falls Church and the alleged assault of two Muslim womenwaiting to pick their children up from school in Northern Virginia. 

Following the most recent vandalism, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin visited the community center in Henrico and condemned what he called an attack on religious freedom. 

“We stand together as a community against any violence, but particularly when it is targeted against a house of worship and people of faith. And that's why this is such an important moment for us to make sure we stand in solidarity against that,” Youngkin said. 

Youngkin met with members of the center’s board of trustees on Eid, another important Muslim holiday, and promised he would look into updated law enforcement guidelines and training around times when people of the Muslim faith are in custody.

“The training of law enforcement and the understanding of the Muslim community is really important,” Youngkin said. “It's one of the reasons why I've been so focused on funding and compensation and training and community outreach from our law enforcement. And I think this is really our next big step.” 

According to Shahbaz, CAIR last year recorded 200 complaints from incarcerated Muslims over mistreatment by Virginia law enforcement..

Police officers in Henrico County already receive cultural diversity training in the police academy, as well as when they are trained on the job, according to Pecka. 

Though Youngkin expressed a general condemnation of hate crimes motivated by religious bias, he made news last year over the views of a former campaign communications director. Matt Wolking was the author of a blog that referred to 90 million Muslims as “murderous thugs" and CAIR as “the longtime arm of terrorism.”

Youngkin did not directly answer questions about how he plans to respond to people in his administration with such ideologies. 

“I think one of the most important things we can do is recognize that when we see something like what has happened here in the last six months,” Youngkin said. “This is a moment for us to recognize across the commonwealth and across the country, that there is no place for religious persecution, there was no place for us to condemn people because of their faith.” 

Shahzeb Khan is on the management committee of the West End Islamic Center. He wants the governor to be more specific in his response. 

“Probably [it] could have been more detailed,” Khan said. 

Shahbaz took a stronger stance on the issue, warning the governor that inaction can contribute to violence. 

“If he does not take the threat of Islamophobia seriously, he's complicit in the Islamophobia that is happening in the state,” Shahbaz said. “Anti-Muslim blogs and online Islamophobia … this is … what's really contributing to a climate of Islamophobia. It’s the sort of anti-Muslim messaging that we're seeing in a lot of these platforms, especially in these right-wing blogs.” 

The Richmond-area Muslim community came together on the day the Islamic center was attacked to repair the space for holiday services.

“We pulled together really well. We got together the same day [and] cleaned up. We had daily services,” Perwez said. 

According to the Henrico County police, the case remains open and active. 

This story was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Clarification: Matt Wolking's comments on Muslims and CAIR have been updated to more fully reflect their context.

Correction: The spelling of Huzaifa Shahbaz's name was incorrect in several places and has been corrected. VPM regrets the error.