Mil­i­tary killings test Chat­tanooga’s unity

Arm guards­men, gover­nors urge

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - WORLD - By Jay Reeves, Michael Biesecker and Kath­leen Foody

CHAT­TANOOGA, Tenn. — As the death toll rose to five, a hand­ful of gover­nors or­dered Na­tional Guards­men to take up arms in re­sponse to the brazen at­tacks on two Ten­nessee mil­i­tary sites.

In Chat­tanooga, a city that prides it­self on strong ties be­tween peo­ple of dif­fer­ent faiths, some Mus­lims feared the com­mu­nity’s per­cep­tion of them had changed af­ter the shoot­ing rampage Thurs­day.

A 24-year-old man and fel­low Mus­lim killed four marines and wounded three oth­ers, in­clud­ing a sailor who died Satur­day from his wounds.

Mohsin Ali, a mem­ber of the Is­lamic So­ci­ety of Greater Chat­tanooga, said he hoped the lo­cal com­mu­nity didn’t dis­solve into tur­moil the way oth­ers have in the re­gion over the build­ing of mosques and other mat­ters. Peace­ful co­ex­is­tence has largely pre­vailed.

“We, our kids, feel 100 per cent Amer­i­can and Chat­tanoogan,” said the Pak­istani-born Ali, 42, who is a child psy­chi­a­trist. “Now they are won­der­ing if that is how peo­ple still look at them.”

Va­len­cia Brewer, the wife of a Bap­tist min­is­ter, knows how she’ll try to see Mus­lims as the days af­ter the hor­rific shoot­ing turn to weeks.

“I think the way you have to look at it is this was an in­di­vid­ual per­son. You can’t point at all Mus­lims be­cause of this,” she said.

Ali and Brewer were among more than 1,000 peo­ple who at­tended a me­mo­rial ser­vice Fri­day night at a Bap­tist church for the vic­tims. Ali, one of the speak­ers, railed against shooter Muham­mad Youssef Ab­du­lazeez, who died in po­lice gun­fire af­ter his at­tacks, as a “mur­derer” who com­mit­ted a “cow­ardly and cruel” act.

“He shot our marines and our po­lice of­fi­cers, shat­tered the peace of our city, fright­ened our chil­dren,” Ali said. “He de­stroyed the lives of his whole fam­ily. He did his best to spread ha­tred and di­vi­sion. Dis­grace­ful. And we will not let that en­dure.”

As FBI agents served a war­rant on the Ab­du­lazeez home Thurs­day, two women wear­ing Is­lamic head cov­er­ings were seen be­ing led away in hand­cuffs. But FBI agent Jason Pack said Satur­day no ar­rests have been made in the case.

Author­i­ties are look­ing into the shoot­ing as a ter­ror­ism in­ves­ti­ga­tion and whether Ab­du­lazeez was inspired or di­rected by any ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion. They still don’t know what mo­tived Ab­du­lazeez.

The pres­i­dent of the Is­lamic So­ci­ety of Greater Chat­tanooga said Ab­du­lazeez’s fa­ther said he felt blind­sided and did not see changes in his son.

“He told me that he had never seen it com­ing, and did not see any signs from his son that he would be that way and do some­thing like that,” Bas­sam Issa said.

Mean­while, gover­nors in at least a half-dozen states or­dered Na­tional Guards­men to be armed, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott moved his state’s Guard re­cruiters from store­fronts in ur­ban ar­eas to ar­mouries.

Ali said im­mi­grants such as him­self owe a debt of grat­i­tude to Amer­ica and the armed forces pro­tect­ing it, be­cause they of­ten know first-hand what it means to live in coun­tries with­out per­sonal free­doms or the rule of law. Near the end of the ser­vice, at Ali’s urg­ing, dozens of Mus­lims re­ceived a stand­ing ova­tion as they stood in sup­port of their city and in al­le­giance to their na­tion.

It was a re­mark­able show of to­geth­er­ness in a re­gion where re­la­tions have some­times been tense since the terror at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

About 160 kilo­me­tres to the north­west, plans to con­struct an Is­lamic cen­tre drew stiff com­mu­nity op­po­si­tion for years in Murfrees­boro, Tenn., where the mosque fi­nally opened in 2012. Op­po­nents then filed suit to block plans for an ad­join­ing ceme­tery, but a judge tossed the case last year.

That sort of thing hasn’t hap­pened in Chat­tanooga. In­stead, many non-Mus­lim neigh­bours at­tended an open house for the $2-mil­lion, domed Is­lamic Cen­ter of Greater Chat­tanooga when it opened in 2012.

Rais­ing money and build­ing the mosque, school and com­mu­nity cen­tre took about five years. Peo­ple in Chat­tanooga never ques­tioned it, said Issa of the Is­lamic So­ci­ety.

“We just feel very lucky to be in a city like this,” he said. “I wouldn’t know why a city chooses to be tol­er­ant and peace­ful ver­sus a city that may have some trou­ble with such a pro­ject.”

Still, the events of the last few days have left some on edge, par­tic­u­larly the young. The end of Ramadan is usu­ally a time for cel­e­bra­tion, but events at the Is­lamic cen­ter were can­celled af­ter the shoot­ings. A sign on the door Fri­day en­cour­aged visi­tors to go to the me­mo­rial ser­vice in­stead.

Ali said he plans to of­fer coun­selling for con­cerned mem­bers of the Is­lamic com­mu­nity, and that might help ease con­cerns. But he isn’t sure.

—The As­so­ci­ated Press

MARK ZALESKI / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sophia Ens­ley (left) com­forts Barbie Branum be­side a me­mo­rial in Chat­tanooga, Tenn., Satur­day.

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