Police arrested a Texas man Monday afternoon and charged him with arson in connection with a fire at an Islamic school in Houston.
Darryl Ferguson, 55, admitting to setting fire to the Quba Islamic Institute on Friday. The blaze ripped apart a building storing computers and renovation supplies. No one was injured in the fire, and for that the educational institute’s leader, Imam Ashan Zahid, is grateful.
Police refused to speculate as to Ferguson’s motive. While being transferred in custody Monday evening, he told reporters that he was just trying to stay warm; a theory that was broadcast by local media four days earlier.
According to Zahid, an investigator at the Houston arson bureau reported the cause of the fire as “non-accidental.” He told the Daily Dot on Monday night that he was informed of Ferguson’s arrest by the media, and that police hadn’t contacted the Quba institute.
A police spokesperson said that Ferguson has an extensive criminal history, including charges of drug possession and prostitution. An investigation by local reporters turned up as many as 17 mugshots.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has called on federal and state authorities to investigate whether the fire was a hate crime.
Following the incident, and the murders of three Muslim students in North Carolina last week, CAIR issued an alert, calling on Muslims across the country to step up security around mosques and keep a close eye on their children.
“The recent spike in anti-Muslim hate rhetoric and bias-motivated attacks on American Muslims and their institutions must be addressed by our nation’s leaders,” CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper said in a statement.
Zahid told the Daily Dot that two days before the fire in Houston his members encountered a masked individual lurking around the Quba institute. “An individual with their face covered was going behind the buildings where the fire happened later,” he said. “When we tried to track him down, he disappeared.”
The night before the fire, someone drove by the institute in a pickup truck, which Zahid described as an “older year white Dodge Ram with stripes on the front fenders,” shouting racial epithets about Muslims.
In contrast, the response online to the fire has been overwhelming supportive, Zahid said.
“I would say 95 percent of the comments have been beautiful, sincere, kind words,” he added. “And at least half are from people of other religions.”
Zahid was particularly grateful to the surrounding Christian community. A local Presbyterian church has offered to allow Quba’s members to use their facilities for worship.
“Christians, Jews, atheists, from almost every state in the United States, have expressed concern, solidarity and support,” he continued.
Nevertheless, there has been a troubling rise in hateful comments posted to Quba’s Facebook page. In response to a post about the fire, one person wrote: “burn, baby, burn.”
“This was a waste of a perfectly good fire, now if the building was full of Muslims when it burned, it would have been a great success,” another wrote. In a separate post, someone suggested locking the members inside the building before setting it on fire.
Zahid described the posts as “normal, run-of-the-mill stuff on Facebook.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been notified of the threatening messages, however, and its officials have been monitoring the arson investigation.
On Sunday, Zahid was contacted by a fire chief regarding widely publicized reports that a Houston-area volunteer firefighter had suggested blocking fire hydrants and allowing the fire to burn.
“Please know that this person, Dustin Herron, is not a member of the Crystal Beach Volunteer Fire Dept; nor has he ever been a member of our fire department. We are in the process of trying to track down Mr. Herror regarding the comments he made,” the chief told Zahid, adding that Herron had been reported to the Galveston County Sheriff’s Department.
“We need to be more vigilant and security-conscious,” CAIR Texas Executive Mustafaa Carroll told the Daily Dot on Tuesday. “The mosques need to be aware and alert. They need to have guarded access to their facilities. In the case that they receive threats, they need to notify the FBI or local police immediately.”
“We try our best not to be alarmists,” he added. “We just want to live in a safe society.”
Zahid said on Facebook that he’s been criticized by some for his “pacifist” approach to the fire. “God forgives all sins,” he responded.
“What we have lost in that building is just material things,” he added, “but these words that you have given us are priceless and they give us the strength to move forward, to pick up the pieces and make something better.”
Screenshot via Quba Islamic Institute