In This Holy Month Of Ramadan.

For the congregants at the Islamic Society of Joplin, their holiest month of the year has also been a month of hate. Since July, the city’s only mosque has been the site of two fires. The first was at the hand of an arsonist. The second fire, still under investigation, burned the mosque to the ground. Now without its place of worship, Joplin’s Muslim community must find a way to endure.

story by Roman Stubbs / photos by Roman Stubbs and Dan Oshinsky
published August 7, 2012

Maydelle Bayona pulled up in an SUV to the front of the mosque in Joplin, Mo., on a mid-July afternoon, and knocked on the heavy wooden doors. The mosque’s spiritual leader, Imam Lahmuddin, answered the door and greeted her warmly.

As the two began to talk in the entryway of the building, Bayona tried to sell Lahmuddin on a piece of secluded property in town. Bayona, a local real estate agent, had a mansion available on West Brompton Road in Joplin, which sits on a gated plot of 10 acres and has a cathedral-like ceiling. It also has security capabilities that she thought Lahmuddin might be interested in.

“I’ve heard that you have had some problems here,” Bayona said to Lahmuddin, as he merely nodded along. The problems went unstated. In its four years on the city’s west side, the Islamic Society of Joplin had been the target of both hate speech and physical attacks.

The most recent was an arson attempt that had occurred only 15 days prior. During the early hours of July 4, a man in a dark collared shirt walked up to the front of the mosque carrying an explosive package, with a long fuse attached to it. He lit the fuse and threw it on top of the mosque’s roof, then fled through the parking lot. The blaze didn’t spread, however, and first responders were able to limit the damage to a few melted shingles.

It was the second time in four years that someone had attempted arson at the mosque. In 2008, a year after opening, the property’s sign burned down.

Lahmuddin listened to the realtor’s pitch. When the conversation ended, she left, and the Imam returned inside to his mosque, with a flier advertising the property in hand. He loved this space, which featured a large amphitheater for worship and several dining rooms and a kitchen in the back, perfect for celebrations for the 50 Muslim families that came to his services every week. Outside, there was a shed that Lahmuddin built himself for utility purposes and a playground for little ones to play after prayer.

Bayona’s offer was on the table. But Lahmuddin already had his mind made up.

He wasn’t leaving.

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(At top) Some of the mosque’s youths look at what’s left of their former house of worship. (Above) Surveillance footage from the arson attempt on July 4. The suspect in the video has yet to be identified.

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On the blistering morning of Aug. 6, Lahmuddin still doesn’t want to leave. His vacant stare falls upon the charred rubble of his mosque, which has burned through most of the morning. Law enforcement vehicles are everywhere; officers rope off the entire property with yellow crime-scene tape, while agents sift through the ashes. The surveillance box, which had helped law enforcement in its search for a person of interest in the July 4 arson, now sits where the mosque’s front door once stood. The box is smoldering black, awaiting transport to the FBI lab to see if any evidence can be salvaged. All that remains on the property is the shed Lahmuddin built and a playground for the children.

“This is a big test for us, and this Ramadan is a test to us to manage our temper, not to get mad, not to get angry,” he says. He is calm, even smiling. This is the nature of his faith: To listen when God speaks, and to relinquish control to a higher power.

He doesn’t want to speculate on the nature of the fire, he says. He’ll leave that up to the authorities.

The authority in question is Jasper County Sheriff Archie Dunn. The mosque is just outside of city limits, leaving the county in charge.

As of Monday afternoon, Dunn says the fire is still under investigation. On Monday morning, dogs roamed the grounds, sniffing for accelerant. Investigators are waiting to hear back from the lab.

“As of right now,” he says, “it’s just a fire of a suspicious nature.”

But even at this early juncture, some things are already clear: At 3:33 a.m. Monday, a newspaper carrier calls 911 to report a fire at the mosque. Six minutes later, the Carl Junction Fire Department arrives on the scene, but the fire has spread too quickly, officials say. The mosque is already gone. By mid-morning, the Council on American-Islamic Relations offers a $10,000 reward for information about the fire; the FBI is already offering $15,000 for information about the July 4 fire.

That first incident continues to trouble Dunn. The mosque’s security cameras caught a very clear picture of the suspect, he says, but no one has come forward to identify him. Dunn stepped up his patrols for a week following that incident, setting up late-night roadblocks around the mosque to identify vehicles frequently driving by the site. Those roadblocks turned up no serious leads, he says.

Dunn believes that if the department is going to catch a break in that case, and possibly in the Aug. 6 incident, it will come from a tip.

“It’s pretty simple,” he says. “We just need a break. We need somebody who knows who this person is from the first fire that we can start with. We know how to interrogate, we know how to interview. Somebody is just not talking.”

Maybe, he suggests, a bigger reward might lead to better tips. He says the suspect in the July 4 arson is most likely a local, and he says that there are sources out there who might soon crack — if the price is right.

“It’s hard to keep a secret like this,” he says. “But you’ve got to make it worth my time to tell you what I know. You have to offer me a carrot on a stick — or a big carrot on a stick.”

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The burned remains of the Joplin mosque. At left, the shed built by Lahmuddin still stands, as does the mosque's playground.
The burned remains of the Joplin mosque. At left, the shed Lahmuddin built still stands, as does the mosque’s playground.

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After the first fire, which only burned a small section of the mosque, Lahmuddin told himself that the damage “can be worse than that.” But he remembered his teachings. He reminded himself of the challenges he’d already faced.

Still, he wanted to know why.

“There is always disagreement between one person and another when you live in a group or a community,” he said. “We have disagreements. And we need to find out what caused these disagreements. … Respect the differences.”

Finally, he settled on a thought, something instilled in him from years of prayer.

“I don’t have control,” he told himself. “Nobody has control. Who controls the fire? God. He controlled the fire.”

So Lahmuddin turned over control to God. He led his congregation. He prayed. He fasted.

And on the morning of Aug. 6, for the second time in a month, Lahmuddin wakes to the shocking news that his temple is on fire — this time, a fire that can’t be controlled.

“According to our scripture, everything belongs to God, and everything will return to Him,” he says. “So He loaned us this place in 2007, and we use it to worship Him. Now He takes it back. So we let it go.”

Many of his members come by to see the destruction before work. At the mosque, he says, at least 80 percent of his congregation works in the local health care system.

The mosque itself sits just three miles west of Mercy Hospital, which suffered catastrophic damage during the 2011 tornado. Lahmuddin lost his house — “complete,” he says — and 60 percent of his congregation did, too. [1] But since then, the congregation’s pain has been inflicted by man, not nature.

Practicing Islam in this part of the country has never been easy. Groups in the region have endured hate in different forms. Vandals tagged the Springfield Islamic Center with anti-Islamic graffiti in January 2011. A few months later, burned Qurans and a threatening letter were found at the building. Other incidents have marred Cape Girardeau, Mo., in May 2009, and St. Louis in September 2010. A horrific arson in Wichita, Kan., in October 2011 caused more than $100,000 in damage.

The timing further complicates this latest act of destruction in Joplin. This month is Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar. On this day, Lahmuddin stands in 90-degree heat for much of the day, fielding calls and completing dozens of interviews. He has to rise above the shock and sadness of the fire to complete his duties as Imam, and also as a Muslim. He leaves the site frequently to return home for prayer — prayers that would otherwise be completed at the mosque — and per Ramadan tradition, he does not eat or drink all day.

The fire in Joplin comes just a day after a shooting at a Milwaukee Sikh temple left seven dead. Lahmuddin doesn’t need to be reminded of this. He understands that his God gives and takes away. He says he is grateful nobody was hurt in his mosque’s fire. All that was lost were material things.

“I would invite you in,” Lahmuddin says to a bystander Monday morning, pointing at the smoking rubble. “But there is nowhere to invite you in to.”

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Imam Lahmuddin, the morning after the fire that burned down his mosque.
Imam Lahmuddin, the Joplin mosque’s spiritual leader.

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On the third night of Ramadan in late July, the Islamic Society of Joplin was a festive place to be. Weeks earlier, an arsonist had tried to set fire to the mosque. But the building refused to crumble. For the fifth consecutive year, the congregation could celebrate Ramadan in Joplin.

And so the community continued to come to services. More than 70 members of the assembly had made it through the third day of fasting and arrived at the church to pray twice over a four-hour span.

In between, they ate. The women of the congregation had provided massive amounts of exotic foods — colorful recipes from the assortment of Middle Eastern and Asian countries that the members once came from. After the sun went down, the faithful prayed for about 10 minutes, and then took their grumbling stomachs and formed lines for the buffet. Lahmuddin, dressed in a gray tunic, his black hair and long black beard neatly combed, was one of the last to take his place in line. The men sat in one dining room, the women in another; small children darted through the hallways, trying to grab onto the ends of one another’s miniature tunics.

At the end of the table in the men’s dining room, a young Muslim from Philadelphia named Taimur sat and shared laughs with an elder Muslim from Bangladesh named Shafique. Both are unwavering in their discipline during Ramadan; it not only takes devout faith but a determined will to follow Ramadan in contemporary America. [2]

What makes it easier for these men is the strong leadership of Lahmuddin. He and his wife come from small villages in Indonesia, where he received extensive education in Islamic ministry as well as historical studies. In 1995, when he received a Fulbright scholarship, Lahmuddin came to study history at the University of Arkansas, where he eventually earned his Ph.D., in Middle Eastern Studies. He’s strikingly intelligent, able to transition effortlessly from giving an interview in English to speaking with his wife in Indonesian to addressing his followers in Arabic, all within a matter of seconds.

The poise that Lahmuddin displays on the morning of Aug. 6, as members of his congregation arrive to see the destruction for themselves, is the type of composure that has made him an influential leader in his community — one that stretches far beyond Joplin.

“There is always disagreement between one person and another, when you live in a group or a community. We have disagreements. And we need to find out what caused these disagreements.”

In 2004, Lahmuddin was handpicked to lead the Indonesian Muslim community in New York City — a congregation of about 3,000 members. He stayed in Queens for three years, where he learned the daily routines and rigors of being a minister. It was a mighty ascent for a boy from a small Indonesian village. But for all that New York City gave him, when an opportunity to build an Islamic community in an unconventional part of the country arose in 2008, Lahmuddin answered the call. He came back to the Ozarks to become the Imam at the Islamic Society of Joplin. It would be the greatest task of his spiritually driven life.

“When there is a challenge,” he says, “God gives you the courage.”

The community was already in place for Lahmuddin to lead, and he loved the congregation’s new facility. It didn’t look like a Middle Eastern mosque, with minarets and bright colors. More than anything else, it looked like a common Bible Belt church.

Inside, it had large pews facing a large stage, but Lahmuddin tore the pews out, and laid out beautiful burgundy and turquoise prayer rugs with Persian embroidery. He also had a sound system to work with, with speakers in each room of the mosque. The hum of his prayer became a normal echo throughout the mosque every session — including on that evening in July. When Lahmuddin began his sermon, each and every one of his members was in the mosque, ready to kneel with him in prayer. Children continued to chase one another around the stage, above where their parents were worshipping for the fifth and final time that day. Lahmuddin’s opening remarks reverberated through the speakers and into the empty building, which still smelled of chicken, rice and pudding.

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An evening of worship during Ramadan, here at the mosque after the July 4 arson attempt.
Above, the mosque, as seen after the first arson attempt. Below, an evening of worship during this year’s Ramadan celebrations.

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For more than 15 years, Ross Humphrey has lived on Black Cat Road. Five years ago, the Islamic Society of Joplin moved next door. When they came to this location in the heart of the Bible Belt, Lahmuddin and his congregation became Humphrey’s unexpected but welcome neighbors.

Humphrey’s seen Lahmuddin work tirelessly to integrate his congregation into the neighborhood, and the rest of the community. When someone in Humphrey’s family is sick, a member of the mosque comes over to offer food or support. Humphrey’s children often play on the mosque’s lawn, and Lahmuddin’s children play on Humphrey’s. Even on the Fourth of July, just hours after the failed arson attempt, the neighbors sat out on their lawns and watched the fireworks together in Joplin. As long as they’re neighbors, Humphrey says, there are no boundaries.

Humphrey has also witnessed plenty of hostility toward the mosque. He has watched people drive by the property and yell obscenities while children play on the lawn. He’s watched grown men give them the finger. And after the July 4 arson, he feared that the mosque could be targeted again.

“Too many prejudiced people in the world,” he says.

On Monday, just before 4 a.m., the sound of fire engines jolt Humphrey from his sleep. Humphrey steps outside. The smoke and flames confirm his worst fears.

“It was huge,” says Humphrey. The fire engulfed the structure, the roof collapsed and the flames shot through the top of the mosque.

By sunrise, Humphrey’s out in front of the mosque, smoking a cigarette and trying to console his shocked neighbor, Lahmuddin. They talk casually for a while, and Lahmuddin eventually makes light of the fact that the shed he built is still standing in the back of the burnt rubble. It is one of the lasting remnants of his temple.

There is not much left.

The parking lot soon harbors a white crime lab truck, a tent for investigators and a few bulldozers. There are a dozen law enforcement officials on the grounds. News trucks park on the outskirts of the property, and passersby crane their necks in disbelief. Even in Joplin, a town that has grown accustomed to the daily sight of debris, the torched building causes slow-and-stare — if not stop-and-stare — reactions all day.

It’s a day of fasting unlike any other for Lahmuddin and his congregation, but that doesn’t excuse them from their religious obligations. The FBI and ATF [3] agents have their responsibilities, and Lahmuddin has his. Even without a building, Lahmuddin vows to continue to lead his congregation though the holy month — starting immediately.

“In terms of worshipping, we still have to worship God on a regular basis,” he says. “But we just can’t do it in this place. If we don’t have a place to do it together, we still have to do it at home.”

He glances at what’s left of the mosque.

“We cannot make excuses for not doing it,” he says.

By the end of the afternoon, Lahmuddin has changed out of his brown tunic and into more casual attire. He surveys the destruction one last time, then takes a call on his cell phone while climbing into his red minivan. He returns home with several members of the congregation, to pray and prepare for the evening feast.

As night falls on the city, there are only a few law enforcement officials left on the scene. The foundation of the mosque has already been cleared by bulldozers. The families of the mosque should be here, like they were last night, celebrating Ramadan late into the evening.

Instead, across Joplin, some 50 Muslim families await the evening prayers — for the first time during this holy month of Ramadan, alone.

On this night, and tomorrow, and the next, they will pray. They will pray even though so much has already been taken from them. They will look again to their leader, to Lahmuddin.

He will not leave, and neither will they. reporters Dan Oshinsky, Jordan Hickey and Zach Crizer contributed to this story.