A recent wave of bank holdups and a homicide committed by men dressed as Muslim women has prompted the Philadelphia-area Islamic community to offer a $20,000 reward for tips that lead to the arrest and conviction of the suspects.
The Majlis Ash Shura, an organization representing the membership of 71 masajids and congregations in the Philadelphia area, was joined by elected officials at a news conference Tuesday at City Hall.
The message from the District Attorney's Office and the Islamic community: zero tolerance.
"Philadelphia is a unique city in that Islam is not new here," said Aliya Khabir, a public relations official representing the national United Muslim Masajid. "It's up to us to set the tone for how this is addressed."
Five bank robberies
Since December, there have been at least five bank robberies in Philadelphia in which the suspects wore Muslim clothing. The most recent holdups include a robbery at the Wells Fargo Bank in the 700 block of Adams Avenue and the Sovereign Bank in the 8300 block of Stenton Avenue. On April 18, a suspect dressed in Muslim garb entered an Upper Darby barber shop and fatally shot Michael Turner, 35. Sharif Wynn, 27, of Philadelphia has been arrested.
The clothing, which consists of a loose dress, or abaya, and a head covering known as a niqab, is worn by some Muslim women as a sign of respect for God.
"Whatever happened to the mask?" asked Imam Asim Abdul-Rashid, head of the Masajid of the Delaware Valley, referring to the stereotypical ski mask in crimes.
Both members of the Majlis Ash Shura and Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said other major U.S. cities have not faced this issue. Jones said he did not believe a single group was responsible for the holdups, but rather that some "not-too-smart criminals" were using the disguise to get closer to their victims.
During the news conference, District Attorney Seth Williams said the recent crimes would not be tolerated.
"We are seeing cowards dressed in the outer garb of Muslim women," he said. "We will do all that we can to make sure [Muslim] women aren't degraded in this way."
Women in jeopardy
Many in the Muslim community consider this a wave of "hate crimes," because it puts Muslim women in jeopardy.
Amir Imam al-Atharee, a member of the Majlis Ash Shura, said this kind of activity "makes it dangerous for Muslim women and the community." He is worried that Muslim women, especially those wearing the traditional garb, will be ostracized and targeted, so that they won't be safe even going to the corner store.
"I would like to ask the perpetrators if they have a mother, a daughter, or an aunt, and if they'd put them in jeopardy with this act," said Alia Walker, executive director of Earth's Keepers in Philadelphia.
"We are human beings. To have my peers look at me in some kind of way because of this crime ... it really hurts my heart," Walker said.
"You put everyone in danger," Jones said, referring to the criminals. "We've been through enough since 9/11 to have this kind of distrust."