Peace festival organized after local mosque receives hate mail

by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

Officials at the Islamic Center of Greensboro have taken a situation in which they received a piece of hate mail and turned it into an opportunity to enhance peace and understanding.

Greensboro police and local religious leaders are uncertain if the owner of a restaurant on Spring Garden Street sent the piece of hate mail to the mosque, located on Sixteenth Street on the city’s north side. A letter postmarked June 25 arrived at the center at a time when faithful Muslims were observing Ramadan.

The letter, which purported to be from the restaurant owner, said that his customers “are very uncomfortable with Muslims on or close to my property.”

“Customers have threatened to take their business elsewhere,” the letter states. “With all due respect I request that you make it known to your community that it would be appreciated if they became less visible in my area. Thank you for your cooperation in this matter.”

Wasif Qureshi, who was president of the Islamic Center of Greensboro until his term ended recently, said the mosque’s treasurer received the letter in the mail and opened it on a day when a meeting was scheduled to discuss expansion of the center’s school, Greensboro Islamic Academy.

Qureshi requested that the restaurant not be identified in this story.

“My first reaction to receiving the letter was shock that in this day and age you would have somebody have such an outright opinion about a whole group of people and want to condemn them from your property,” Qureshi said during an interview in his home in a well-manicured neighborhood off of North Church Street. “It was shock. But it was never anger.”

Several leaders of the mosque were present when Qureshi read the letter. Initial reactions included organizing a boycott or protest, Qureshi said, but he urged restraint.

“My initial reaction was that I have to talk to him. I just wanted to know what he thinks and what he feels because I could swear that the air I felt from the letter was one of misconception and lack of understanding … around Islam and Muslims in general,” Qureshi said.

A small circle of leaders at the mosque discussed the letter that day, including Adamou Mohamed, chair of the city’s International Advisory Commission, and Moussa Issifou, a professor at NC A&T State University and a member of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission.

Debate at first involved the idea of a boycott, Qureshi said, and it “took a little bit of gymnastics” to get away from that idea and move toward building something positive from the experience.

“The reactions I received from people that day, and from people outside the mosque, was ‘let’s boycott them,'” Qureshi said. “I thought that was a given. He doesn’t want us to be there, why should we go there?” He advocated for a peaceful response to the letter. As soon as those words came up, Qureshi said he thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi and remembered the large picture of Gandhi at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Downtown Greensboro.

“Once you do it, you realize that’s the best alternative,” Qureshi said. “You don’t want to stay in the dark with this person. You don’t want to engage on this level. You want to engage him beyond that, something positive.”

Adamou Mohamed shared the letter with members of the IAC a few days later. In a July 1 email to IAC members, city staffers, and at-large council member Marikay Abuzuaiter, Mohamed said he was “looking for guidance as to what role the city and the IAC can play in this situation.”

“I am still baffled by the content of this letter and believe we should do something to address the negative message of unwelcoming prejudice it contains,” Mohamed wrote. “As a Muslim, I am hurt and cannot understand why a business in a city we call welcoming to diversity would want to exclude a group based on their religious beliefs.”

Mohamed shared the letter, with the name of the restaurant, the owner and his phone number, redacted.

Qureshi replied a few hours later urging that everyone take steps not to identify the business.

“We, the Islamic Center of Greensboro, would be especially grieved if any harm came to the shop or the keeper,” Qureshi wrote. “Our responsibility now is to use this singular incident and educate the general public about Islam as well as solidarity, toleration and understanding amongst human beings.”

The Greensboro Police Department received the letter this way and looked into the incident. Qureshi had called the shop owner seeking a discussion, but had not received a reply until police contacted the restaurant owner.

Greensboro Chief of Police Wayne Scott said this week that the letter could be classified as “hate mail” and that officers did look into the situation.

“Anytime a letter is brought to our attention, which we believe could create a problem in our community, we investigate it,” Scott said. “In this instance they had reached out to the store owner and asked that they be able to handle it at that point.”

Qureshi indicated that some of the letter’s language caused him concern. The idea that Muslims should become “less visible” was a particular red flag, he said, because it brought back memories of the shooting in Chapel Hill earlier this year in which three Muslim students were shot and killed in a neighborhood dispute.

Chief Scott said that GPD’s Special Intelligence Unit pays attention to those groups that could be targets of hate. Special operations monitored this situation, he said, and looked for other indicators from that source but found no other warning signs.

Qureshi eventually received a call from the restaurant owner, who denied writing the letter. The two had a lengthy phone conversation, which ended with plans for Qureshi to visit the restaurant.

The restaurant owner was concerned that the letter had gotten out onto the internet, Qureshi said, but he reassured him that steps had been taken to prevent that from happening.

“He verbally told me that we was surprised by our reaction,” Qureshi said. “He was pleasantly surprised. Even if he wrote it, maybe he is realizing he did something wrong and is anticipating some kind of push back or reaction.”

The incident was of particular concern because of the restaurant’s proximity to UNCG, which has a growing population of Muslim students. A report completed in April showed that Islamic students on campus have “a very low satisfaction with all 33 items of the survey completed.”

“The data summarized here call for the need for more dialogue, more understanding, increased emphasis on our shared work to promote a safe and engaging climate for study and growth in a University context,” wrote the reports author’s, UNCG faculty members Vincent Francisco and Ahmet Tanhan.

Qureshi said that the mosque often receives communication similar to the letter, but nothing that raised such red flags. He said the tone of the letter did reflect things students hear at times.

“It is pointing to the same thing that these students are hearing and suffering through the same kind of jesting and issues, maybe not as direct as written in the letter,” Qureshi said.

Peace Festival scheduled for Sept. 19.

Ultimately, Qureshi said that the incident will be used to build bridges in the community. Chief Scott visited the mosque at the end of Ramadan, by which time plans had been set in place to hold a Peace Festival at the ICRCM.

“As a community we are realizing to come to these locally grown relationships,” he said. “People who are managing food are realizing the same, that there is an industrialization of what is happening to food that might be unhealthy. Come to your local relationships and you will find that people are different from the caricature that is posted about us on TV.”

The Peace Festival will take place at 5 p.m. on Sept. 19 at the ICRCM.

Deena Hayes-Greene, board chair of the ICRCM, said that champions of peace, equality and justice “must stand together in unity.”

“The (ICRCM) is known around the world for its origin as the birthplace of the historic and iconic peaceful Sit-In Movement that uprooted the laws of segregation in the South,” Hayes- Greene said. “The museum is proud to continue that tradition of standing up for what’s right and welcomes the Peace Festival, and it’s supporters, who share that mission.” !