New York firebombing ignites Muslim tensions

New York City, USA - New York police arrested a man Tuesday over the firebombing of a mosque, but some say the incident reflects much deeper tensions faced by Muslim New Yorkers -- and that police are partly to blame.

Police say they are investigating whether the throwing of Molotov cocktails at an Islamic center and four other sites were hate crimes.

Even before the question of motive is resolved, the unusual violence has shocked the multi-ethnic borough of Queens.

"Whether it was a senseless act of violence or a hate crime will be determined down the road. In either case, we are not going to tolerate it," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said after meeting with Muslim, Jewish and Christian representatives at the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation, an Islamic center targeted in Sunday's attacks.

Police acted quickly after the incidents, which all took place within a small radius and involved throwing Starbucks Frappuccino bottles filled with burning liquid.

Late Monday, a picture of the suspect and footage of someone hurling a firebomb were released and the arrest was made Tuesday as the suspect, described as a local, got into a car being staked out by officers.

Commissioner Raymond Kelly promised to "leave no stone unturned."

However, this did not satisfy some Muslims who fear the firebombs reflected the spread of Islamophobia in US society since the deadly September 11, 2001 attacks by Al-Qaeda on New York and Washington.

"It was only a matter of time," said Cyrus McGoldrick, civil rights manager of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, citing a "climate of hatred and violence."

Another organization, the Muslim Peace Coalition-USA, said police were partly to blame for that climate.

Ever since 9/11, New York officers have played a growing role in anti-terrorism work and Kelly says the city remains the country's biggest target for militants. He cites the string of bomb plots disrupted over the past decade, many of them motivated by anger at US bombing of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

However, media reports that police have been systematically infiltrating mosques and keeping tabs on Muslims not suspected of any particular crime have outraged the Muslim community and civil rights activists in general.

In a statement distributed at the meeting between Bloomberg and religious leaders Tuesday, the Muslim Peace Coalition-USA described an anti-Islam and anti-Muslim campaign that had "made Islamophobia politically acceptable in America."

It highlighted attempts by the police "to keep the whole Muslim community under warrantless surveillance."

In December, a group of Muslim leaders boycotted a meeting with Bloomberg over the same issue, saying it did not want to sit with the man ultimately responsible for the policy and "smile for the cameras."

Bloomberg, who did not take questions on the subject during his brief appearance Tuesday, has previously insisted that police "don't target any ethnic group," even if he also says that the authorities must look "where the potential threats are reported to be."

Kelly was visibly annoyed -- and kept silent -- when asked if controversy over surveillance could help to stir anti-Muslim feelings.

"That question is not appropriate. Will you please refrain?" interjected a mosque official overseeing the press conference.