The Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido / Image courtesy of NBC San Diego

Yusef Miller believes that the Dar-ul-Arqam would no longer be standing if someone hadn’t accidentally set his alarm early.

That man was one of seven members of the Escondido mosque who eat, sleep and pray together, and when he awoke around 3:15 a.m. on March 24, he noticed a glow through the door frame.

Turns out the building was on fire.

Local and federal officials are now treating it as an arson and hate crime investigation. Graffiti left behind at the scene referenced the terrorist attacks on the Islamic community in Christchurch, New Zealand, only a week prior.

Both secular and religious leaders have rallied behind San Diego County’s own Islamic community in recent days, joining a vigil and offering financial support. Police increased their presence ahead of Friday’s prayers.

Still, the men who were inside the mosque that evening have been mostly silent.

“They don’t like the attention,” said Miller, an Islamic Society of Escondido board member and activist who’s become the spokesman for the larger community. “It’s terrible this thing happened at any mosque, but it’s especially unfortunate it happened there.”

An exterior section of the mosque was scorched by fire. / Photo by Yusef Miller

It’s also not entirely surprising. When compared to the region at large, several cities in North County had comparatively high numbers of reported hate crimes based on their populations in 2017.

Statistics released by the FBI in November show that Vista, Carlsbad and Oceanside were home to a combined 12 incidents based on race, four based on religion and three based on sexual orientation. Escondido was not far behind with five reports citing race as a motivation; El Cajon had four such incidents.

With the exception of Carlsbad, each of those cities is home to large groups of non-white residents. Census data show that Vista and Escondido are more than half Latino.

The county’s lead prosecutor of hate crimes, deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh, told NBC 7 last year that the number of reported incidents in San Diego increased slightly in 2017 above the national average. Collectively, the figures rose for the third straight year.

I asked Trinh for a better sense of why North County was home to a disproportionately high number of reported hate crimes, and he said he wasn’t sure. Different parts of the county have experience spikes in reported hate crimes at different times. For instance, Trinh said, there’ve been several reported cases out of South County within the last 18 months, which should be reflected on the FBI’s next report.

“I wish I could identify a pattern because then it would help us in targeting and fixing this,” Trinh told me. “But the only pattern we see is it’s on the rise.”

Trinh did, however, put part of the blame on social media, which connects people with similarly biased beliefs. In his interview with NBC 7, he said Jews are the target of half of all religion-based crimes, but also noted that suspected hate crimes can be hard to prove because victims often don’t see or know their attacker.

At least one threat of violence against the Islamic community in 2013 did result in charges. San Diego police accused a man of walking into a mosque in the Clairemont neighborhood before 5 a.m. prayer and said he would kill the worshippers inside. Officers, the U-T reported, caught up to him on Convoy Street.

Escondido police have said little about their own investigation, but released a statement on the same day saying they had no suspects. Investigators have not released the exact words that were left behind in reference to the New Zealand massacre. The city removed the graffiti before releasing the crime scene.

Of course, not all forms of race or religion or gender-based harassment are reported to authorities.

Miller told me that a group of Christians who are dedicated to converting Muslims to the Gospel had been regularly showing up at one of Escondido’s three mosques with pamphlets. Until about six months ago, he said, they’d been crashing Friday prayer looking to debate the merits of one another’s religion.

“We have no problem discussing on any other day,” Miller said, “but it’s like somebody coming into church on Sunday and telling people why they’re going to hell.”

Miller doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that a mosque within California’s 50th Congressional District is now the site of an arson and hate crime investigation. During his re-election campaign last year, Rep. Duncan Hunter lobbed rhetorical bombs by playing up fears of a Muslim infiltration of Congress. Although his opponent was Christian, Hunter suggested that Ammar Campa-Najjar was actually an Islamic terrorist in waiting.

Michael Harrison, a spokesman for Hunter, said any act of violence against any people should be investigated and that the congressman appreciated the work of law enforcement in the Escondido mosque case. But Harrison said he disagreed with the suggestion that last year’s campaign rhetoric might have fed into the attempted destruction of the Dar-ul-Arqam.

“I think the blame lies solely on the individual or individuals who contributed to a hate crime like that,” Harrison said.

Hunter’s office has been responding to media requests but did not release a public statement condemning the attack. Instead, Hunter spent the past week raising awareness of the confinement of a Navy seal accused of murdering a teenage Islamic State combatant and holding a ceremony with the corpse.

President Donald Trump responded Saturday by saying he would move the veteran to a more comfortable place while he awaits trial.

I asked why Hunter hadn’t made a bigger show of solidarity with the Muslim community in his own district — Campa-Najjar called him out on social media — and Harrison said the congressman wouldn’t use his office to campaign against a political opponent.

“He’s not going to direct our narrative,” Harrison said.

Federal Regulators Fine San Onofre

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has fined Southern California Edison, the largest owner of the decommissioned San Onofre power station north of Oceanside, $116,000 for an incident in August, the U-T reports. Workers at the station were loading a canister of spent nuclear fuel into a bunker when it got wedged near the top and remained that way for about 45 minutes.

In the meantime, the U-T also reports, Southern California Edison is inspecting a sample of canisters already lowered into the ground, looking for scratches and other types of wear, with the intention of sending the results to regulators before resuming the transfer of those canisters off site.

Rep. Mike Levin, whose district includes San Onofre, is among a group of congressional lawmakers urging officials to expedite the removal of the canisters. He and others want federal funding for what’s known in bureaucratic-speak as “consolidated interim storage” facilities where the canisters can be held on their way to a permanent resting place.

Tribes Want Into Legal Pot

Indian tribes shut out of California’s legal marijuana market are pursuing sales on their own land.

The U-T reports that the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel (technically in northeast San Diego, I know) opened a dispensary inside what used to be a casino that went bust in 2014. It’s the first tribal dispensary in the county, but most likely not the last.

State regulators are vowing not to interfere as long as the tribes stay out of the larger marketplace. Tribes across the state, in the meantime, are lobbying politicians in Sacramento to craft legislation that would allow them to sell marijuana off site.

This is an incredibly complicated issue. Yes, the tribes are sovereign nations, but they’ve overseen by the federal government, which continues to treat marijuana like heroin.

I wrote about Santa Ysabel’s pot plans in 2016 — before Proposition 64 passed — and about the legal gray area and risk that California’s tribes were facing. A series of memos written by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department gave federal prosecutors some discretion over what’s cool and not cool when it comes to marijuana. Those memos, however, were rescinded by Trump’s pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions in 2018, so what’s cool these days is no longer clear — if it ever really was.

San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dianne Jacob has asked the U.S. attorney general’s office to clarify whether Santa Ysabel’s entry into the marijuana business is lawful, according to the U-T.

Stuff I’m Working On

City and state officials are moving against the Crossroads of the West with a bill that would ban gun shows on the Del Mar Fairgrounds. AB 893 advanced out of a public safety committee last week. And on its way through the Legislature it has a key ally in Sacramento: Gov. Gavin Newsom.

In Other News

  • Escondido could get a remote-controlled robot, possibly one capable of using lethal force, with funding thanks to the Department of Homeland Security. Only one City Council member asked for more information after the funding was casually listed on the March 20 agenda under “regional law enforcement equipment.” No big deal. But now would a good time to re-watch the “Black Mirror” episode “Metalhead.” (Coast News)
  • This video of skateboarding legend Tony Hawk driving around North County and encouraging people to do kickflips is my new favorite thing. I also want to recognize the Carlsbad veteran who owns all 11 Dunkin’ Donuts in San Diego County, according to NBC 7. As a Midwesterner by birth, I salute you.
  • Oceanside voters could get a chance next year to decide whether their city clerk and city treasurer positions should be appointed instead of elected. The City Council also decided that a long-debated extension of Melrose Drive into Vista is off the table. (Union-Tribune)
  • Escondido Union School District is considering the creation of a special tax district to help pay for upgrades to its aging schools. (Union-Tribune)
  • A San Diego psychologist was at the center of a cable news debate about the potential political bias built into search engines. He tracked thousands of searches by dozens of undecided voters in several districts with newly elected Democrats, including Mike Levin, and concluded that some had been swayed by Google. The company dismissed his research as amateur, but he’s become a darling of congressional Republicans and Fox News pundits. (Union-Tribune)
  • Carlsbad has settled its lawsuit with the county over plans to extend and upgrade the McClellan-Palomar Airport. The county agreed to work with the city more closely on development projects, landscaping, noise mitigation efforts and more. (Union-Tribune)
  • There will be sweeteners. The developer of the controversial North River Farms residential project proposed for rural northeast Oceanside has offered to acquire and preserve 42 acres to for agriculture or open space. (Union-Tribune)
  • In response to the U-T, Palomar College officials broke down the costs of their president’s $1 million suite. The faculty federation has also raised questions about the college board’s decision to increase the president’s base salary by 27 percent with guaranteed lifetime benefits.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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