TAMPA – The fire melted the mosque’s photographs, burned the thick, green carpet down to bare concrete. A pile of singed prayer rugs sat on the floor. Bookcases along a wall held dozens of scorched Korans. Outside, investigators discovered a can of gasoline, said Hillsborough Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley.
Someone deliberately set fire Thursday morning to the Islamic Education Center of Tampa, a mosque tucked into a neighborhood of tidy suburban homes in Town ‘N Country, according to Hillsborough Fire Rescue and the FBI. Whether hate fueled the fire remained under investigation, said FBI Special Agent Dave Couvertier.
The arsonist found the building empty when the blaze began about 9:30 a.m. Fire crews say someone poured gasoline in a window and set it ablaze. A neighbor called 911, and fire crews controlled the fire within 20 minutes, Yeakley said.
The fire stunned Hamid Faraji, one of the center’s leaders. He wondered why someone would burn a place of worship. But, he said, the fire won’t disrupt religious services. “Even if we had a tent and had to operate out of a tent, I don’t believe something as materialistic as that should stop education,” said Faraji.
There’s been trouble before at the mosque, a block building on Rockpointe Drive. In July 2005, burglars vandalized the building. They burned two pictures on the wall. No one was arrested. There also have been two minor break-ins – the most recent was nine months ago – where people shifted things around inside the building, said Ahmed Bedier, spokesman for the Tampa office of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
There are those with concerns about the mosque, said Bruce Tokarski, 26, a neighbor. “Some of the neighbors seem kind of freaked out about it,” he said. “I think there’s a racist assumption that just because they’re Muslim they could be involved in, you know, terrorism.”