A veteran of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division says he’d be surprised if the fire at the site of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn. isn’t investigated as a hate crime.
“I think it’s pretty clear that there’s a hate crime investigation underway,” William Yeomans, who served in the division for 24 years and was briefly the acting director, told TPMmuckraker today.
Federal authorities, including the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Bureau and the FBI, have said that there’s “no indication” that the fire — set early Saturday morning to pieces of construction equipment at the site of the proposed Islamic center and mosque — is a hate crime.
Yeomans doesn’t think that position will last.
“Something like this, where we have a nationwide atmosphere” of anti-Muslim sentiment, he said, “I don’t think it’ll take whole lot of evidence to get them to open this as a hate crime.”
Yeomans said the fire “seems pretty clearly” to fall under a church arson statute passed in the mid-1990s in response to a spate of church fires in the Southeast. The statute makes it a crime to deface “real religious property.”
To elevate it to hate crime status, Yeomans said, the crime has to have been committed because of someone’s race, religion and ethnicity.
“I think it’s religious real property, in terms of the statute. And it seems to be, potentially at least, that the vandalism and the arson has been committed because of religious character. And that’s enough to establish a hate crime,” he said.
During the church arsons of the 1990s, many of which were aimed at black congregations, the DOJ formed a task force to investigate. Some were found to be racially motivated; others weren’t, Yeomans said. Then, after Sept. 11, 2001, Justice formed another task force to combat anti-Muslim violence, and both the attorney general and the president spoke out against such violence.
“They did a very good job about that,” Yeomans said. “A similar effort now would make a lot of sense, because we’re obviously in a period of heightened tensions. … I think it’s very important for the department to get out there and make it clear that hate crimes against Muslims won’t be tolerated.”
The DOJ has not announced any plans for a task force or other response to what appears to be an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment over the summer. That increase includes the knife attack on a Muslim cab driver in New York City and a Florida church’s plans to burn Korans on Sept. 11.
The department did, however, meet with faith groups yesterday to discuss some of the troubling rhetoric.
“Our concern is that we believe that there needs to be more attention, more resources put into investigating and prosecuting these cases as well as a higher level of attention to whatever efforts the department may be undertaking as well,” Farhana Khera, president of Muslim Advocates, told ABC News.
She said her group wants the DOJ to “send a message that hate and criminal activity and attacks on houses of worship is un-American.”
The Interfaith Alliance and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism also took part, and called the conversation “heartening.”
But the DOJ has yet to speak about the meeting, or the violence. The department has not returned TPMmuckraker’s requests for comment.