Pig intestines wrapped around the front door handles of the halal grocery store in St. Cloud sent a clear message to store manager Liban Said and his customers: You’re not welcome here.
At a youth basketball tournament in Rochester, a spectator called a player wearing a head scarf a “terrorist.”
A Muslim teen said kids in her class were saying, “You’re in ISIS.”
For Minnesota Muslims, such encounters are signs of rising anti-Islam sentiment sweeping across the country with a fervor not seen in recent years.
The latest FBI data show that while hate crimes are down overall in the United States, attacks against Muslims are up. A new study from Georgetown University shows an uptick in hate crimes targeting Muslims since the start of the presidential campaign season.
In Minnesota, speaking events warning about the dangers of sharia law and Muslim immigration have attracted large crowds. Muslim students have staged walkouts to protest bullying at school.
While leaders ranging from President Obama to Gov. Mark Dayton have condemned anti-Muslim behavior, longtime Muslim residents say the climate is as bad now as it was right after the Sept. 11 attacks. Yet many also say they’re confident that things will get better — and that they’re here to stay.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has been stoked by recent shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino by ISIL sympathizers and Sunday’s call by presidential candidate Donald Trump to "seriously" consider profiling Muslims as a way to fight terrorism.
Somali Muslims have felt especially besieged, as three young Somali-Minnesota men were convicted earlier this month in the largest ISIL recruiting trial in the nation.
“It’s not a favorable time to be a black, Muslim, Somali immigrant,” said Jamal Abdulahi, who has lived in Minnesota for more than 20 years.
The unwelcome mat
On a recent night, the flow of customers was constant at Star Market in St. Cloud, a hub for the city’s growing Somali Muslim community. But these days the crowds that convene at the sprawling strip mall contend with more than just the search for a parking spot.
Arriving at work one morning, store manager Liban Said noticed something tied to the front door. He stepped closer and was horrified by what he saw: pig intestines tied to the handles of the double door.
For a “halal” store that sells only products that meet Muslims’ dietary requirements — no pork — the message was obvious.
So far, the culprit has not been caught, leaving Said nervous about the mood of a state that has been his home since 2010.
“It’s not everyone who’s bad,” he said. “But there are some people who don’t like the newcomers.”
Since the start of this school year, the older daughters of Jamal Abdulahi and his wife, Sahra, have been harassed at school because they wear headscarves.
The Rosemount family is one of only a few Somali families in the outer-ring suburb, and the girls are the only ones in their classes who cover their hair — easily identifying them as Muslims.
Other fifth-graders pepper Alia Abdulahi with questions about her scarf. “They say, ‘Are you bald? Do you have cancer?’ ” she said.
Sometimes, they put shirts on their heads and say, “I’m Alia,” she said. “They try to look like me and they don’t know how much it hurts.”
When she complained about the taunts, her father contacted school leaders and steered them to books about the Muslim practice of modest dress, known as hijab. The girls also led a discussion at school about why they wear their scarves.
“That worked, but I don’t know that we can consider the issue completely resolved,” Jamal Abdulahi said.
Kids aren’t the only problem. At a basketball tournament in Rochester, Abdulahi was watching as Alia and her teammates received a tongue-lashing after their game from a fan for the opposing team. When the woman spotted Alia in her basketball uniform and head scarf, Abdulahi said, she added: “By the way, you have a [expletive] terrorist on your team, too.”
The verbal slap “kicked the hell out of me,” Abdulahi said. He spoke to the organizers, who identified the woman and reported the incident to police.
The ongoing conflict in Syria-Iraq and the rise of ISIL was a frequent topic of discussion in Asmaa Abdirahman’s classes in Apple Valley. Now living in Bloomington, she and her sisters have heard disparaging comments from other kids who wonder if they are connected to the terrorist group because they’re Muslim.
“They’ll come home and ask questions like, ‘Who is this ISIS and what do they want?’ said their father, Ahmed Muhumud. He and his wife, Halimo, do their best to reassure their children. “We have to support them by saying, ‘You’re not ISIS. You’re just like them. You were born here,’” he said.
Adding to their woes, many Muslims say, is the anti-Islam talk on the campaign trail.
“Without a doubt that political rhetoric in which presidential candidates are exploiting people’s fears is turning into real world threats for people on the ground,” said Corey Saylor, director of the department that monitors Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.
Despite the negative attention, Abdulahi said that his daughters and wife have no plans to dress differently and they are staying put in Rosemount.
“We don’t plan to go anywhere,” he said. “We look at all this as an obstacle and a problem that we need to solve.”
License plate backlash
In his 16 years in Minnesota, Yussuf Haji has heard people tell him to “go home.” But an episode this year involving Facebook, Twitter and a license plate photo exposed him to a new level of hate.
Haji, along with Natalie Ringsmuth, runs a group called #unitecloud to promote tolerance among residents of St. Cloud. In February, somebody sent him a photo of a Minnesota license plate that read: FMUSLMS.
He posted the picture on his Facebook page to draw attention to the larger issue of intolerance. What happened next surprised even him. “I had people who followed me on my Twitter account that were threatening or saying crazy things to me. They said Muslims should not be in this country, they don’t belong here.“
Facebook messages came in from all over the country, he said. On Twitter, “Someone said if I get you in a battlefield, I will take you out,” he said.
Threats come in person, too. Another time, he and Ringsmuth attended an anti-Islam speaking event in Sartell. “There was a guy who was speaking who was talking about the Qur’an and what it says about jihad and how they want to kill Americans,” Haji recalled. He raised his hand and began to dispute the speaker’s interpretation, and an audience member told him to “ ‘sit down or I’m going to shoot you between the eyes.’
“I told Natalie I don’t need to be here. I have kids,” he said.
The antidote to this fear, Haji said, is more face-to-face interactions and fewer people living in insular communities.
“Me and Natalie, we go to rural areas. We speak at churches and I get questions about Islam,” he said.
On a recent visit to Foley, he said people asked if there would be any Muslims coming to town to build a mosque.
“I told them no, St. Cloud is as far as they come,” he said. “But in having these conversations, maybe you get to know who Muslims are and what they are all about.”
While Abdulahi’s response is to stand his ground and Haji’s is to start community conversations, Fathia Absie is launching her own outreach campaign.
Absie, of Eden Prairie, knows that when she walks in public with her Somali face and hijab, some people may be fearful or disdainful.
So she makes a point of greeting passers-by with a warm smile and a hello. On a recent trip to the post office, she stood outside for an hour holding the door for people. “I try to leave people with a positive impression,” said Absie, a filmmaker who came to America in the 1980s.
Back then, she was among a small number of Somalis living in America and didn’t wear a headscarf. She did not feel the prickly stares she now encounters from time to time. When someone stares, she busts out her best smile.
“I have been mistreated,” she said. Not long ago, she entered a store in Eden Prairie, smiled and said hello to a man who was coming out.
“He flipped,” she said, recalling that he cursed at her and gave her the finger.
Stunned, she walked past him into the store and lingered there — afraid to leave. “I get afraid,” she said. “I’m constantly aware of my surroundings.”
Lately, the fear has spread to her two young daughters.
Absie was driving her 10-year-old daughter, Hodman Nur, to school when the radio broadcast results from the Republican presidential primary election in Indiana. Donald Trump won, all but ensuring that he would win the Republican nomination for president at the upcoming convention.
“Mom, if he wins, are we going to move to Canada?” her daughter asked.
No, Absie said, trying to reassure her.
Her daughter persisted.
“But then what’s going to happen, because he doesn’t like Muslims?” she asked.
With more hope than certainty, Absie told her: “You have nothing to be afraid of.”
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488