Vandalism and repentance: New York Times tells story of a mosque and its attacker

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A 21-year-old drifter helps deface a mosque in Arkansas and gets prison time for it. Who’d think there was much of a story in this?

But the New York Times just ran a beautiful piece on the main actors involved and it's worth the read.

I just finished reading “Hillbilly Elegy,” the J.D. Vance bestseller that spotlights the hopeless multitudes of poor whites in shattered families across Appalachia. Relocate them to Arkansas and you have the perfect setting for what happened next.

FORT SMITH, Ark. -- Abraham Davis was sitting on a thin blue pad on the concrete floor of Cell 3 in a jail in western Arkansas when a guard came around with stamped envelopes and writing paper.
The first person he wrote to was his mother. Abraham, just shy of 21, had barely spoken to her since his arrest a few days before, and he had a lot to explain.
It all began on a night last October when he borrowed her white minivan and drove to the home of a friend. They’d gotten drunk on cheap whiskey. Kentucky Deluxe. Abraham agreed to drive his friend to a mosque in town. His friend drew swastikas and curses on the mosque’s windows and doors while Abraham stood watch in the driveway.
The next day, the vandalism was all over the news. Abraham watched the reports over and over on his phone, his stomach curdling with regret.

I used to live in a city much like Fort Smith. Rich and poor, black and white were at opposite ends of a southern town situated on Interstate-40, but in west Tennessee instead of west Arkansas.

Gangs from nearby Memphis drove up our crime rate. Hospitals and clinics were the largest employers. Neighboring Arkansas was much poorer and destitute but Fort Smith differed from my city in one way: A lot of folks from other countries were moving in.

Let's keep reading:

Muslims from different countries came, too -- some to study, some to work in the city’s growing medical industry. Many had money. Hisham Yasin did not.
A Palestinian who grew up just outside Damascus in Syria, Hisham sold fruits and vegetables in an outdoor market. He came to the United States in 1996, joining his parents and an older brother. Hisham imagined Beverly Hills, but found himself in western Arkansas in a rotting house with rats and cockroaches. He washed dishes at the Golden Corral. His father collected cans. He and a brother, Abdul Rahman, opened a used-car business. They called it A & H Auto Sales.
Today, Hisham lives in a grand house in Fort Smith with sparkling chandeliers on the edge of a thick green forest of oak and pine. He is 49 and has the look of an affable neighborhood baker, with a big belly and a broad smile. He is giving his three children what he calls a “five-star life” compared with his own, which he says began at “below zero.” He follows the news about Syria daily. But Arkansas is his home. He considers the day he came to the United States -- Feb. 11 -- his birthday.

The Times connects the dots at this point: Hisham was one of the founders of the vandalized Al Salam mosque. The name means “peace.”

One reason Hisham lives in a nice place is that real estate in the South is dirt cheap. Coming from overseas, one can make a good living there. The story goes on to tell how the drifter and the Syrian immigrant met when Abraham, sitting in prison, decides to write a letter of apology to the mosque.

This act of repentance raises a question that the Times leaves out: Did Abraham have any faith of his own?

The story mentions none. That's a major hole. But the report does detail the town's reaction and with that a list of how religiously varied the area really is. 

Meanwhile, the town had rallied around the Muslims.
The mosque’s phone started ringing, and didn’t stop. Churches called. A synagogue called. Buddhists called. So did residents who had seen the news or simply driven by. One man called, crying. His daughter had seen the graffiti on her way to work and told him about it. He said the vandals could not have been Christians. No true Christian would have done it.
Anas Bensalah, a mosque member who had taken the day off to help with the cleanup, told the man that he understood completely: That was exactly how he felt every time there was an attack by the Islamic State.

I can’t help but think back to the town in Tennessee where I lived for two years, which had a mosque but whose members didn’t want anyone to know where it was.

I sent some of my journalism students out to investigate the place, but no one wanted to do interviews or let a stranger in to see their services. They were afraid of what could happen; what did happen in Fort Smith.

The article is way too long to reproduce here but it’s certainly worth reading as it gives a sympathetic portrayal of how the Muslims felt and how they tried to exercise the forgiveness their religion calls for. I would have liked a paragraph or two on the religious backgrounds of non-Muslims. For instance:

Today, Fort Smith is a mix of the South and the West, a peanut butter cup of libertarian and Southern Baptist sensibilities. The Old South still haunts the place: A monument to the first white child born in Fort Smith, erected in 1936, still stands, barely noticed, in a small park behind a beverage distributorship. Southside High’s Dixie fight song was not retired until 2015, and its Johnny Rebel mascot a year later -- and not without a fight.

Would like to have seen that “libertarian and Southern Baptist sensibilities” part unpacked a little more. But the Muslims are well described as more educated and upper-class than much of the surrounding town. The Muslims decided to forgive Abraham and ask the court to not impose a prison sentence.

There are hints of some religious ties for Abraham. When he’s released from prison, he’s holding a Bible. He and his mother sing a song by a contemporary Christian musician. And near the end, he thanked the Muslims for their kindness and said he would “pray blessings over them.” 

What is this prayer lingo that he's now saying? Did faith have anything to do with his repentance?

We'll never know. Why wasn't that included in this story?

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