From a security monitor inside his office, Oumer Wako can watch the progress as a warehouse along Minnehaha Avenue is converted into the Tawfiq Islamic Center’s new mosque, an expansion more than 10 years in the making.
But on a trip to the mailbox last fall, Wako discovered that the mosque where he is executive director had become a target of hate as well as pride.
“To whome [sic] it may concern: I will blow up your building with all you immigrants in it just like you blew up our iconic building in New York in 2001,” began the anonymous note, written in a messy scrawl. It concluded: “Get the [expletive] out is a suggestion to you.”
The letter, written by a man who lived nearby and is now in federal custody, was the latest in a surge of hate crimes against Muslims, both in Minnesota and nationally, to levels not seen since the aftermath of 9/11.
While alleged terrorist acts by American Muslims dominate public debate, terror acts against Muslims are rising sharply, even as other hate crime categories appear to be on the decline, according to researchers and data reviewed by the Star Tribune.
The incidents have alarmed Twin Cities Muslims, though many say they are uncertain whether to notify law enforcement or respond quietly for fear of fanning more hostility.
Federal law enforcement officials have taken notice, stepping up public appearances this month in an effort to encourage more reporting of such crimes.
“You never want to wake up one day having not taken action,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said at a community forum on hate crimes last week. “We need to know what’s going on so we can be responsive to you.”
Rise in reports
The meeting reflected the renewed urgency with which FBI officials, local police and Muslim leaders are addressing Islamophobia in light of recent events here and elsewhere.
While overall hate crimes reported by Minnesota law enforcement agencies have dropped by 25 percent since 2010, crimes against Muslims continued an upward trend, rising from 2 to 11 in that same period, according to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). In addition, the BCA reported eight crimes against people identified as Arab or perceived as Arab — a new category — last year.
Minnesota was one of 20 states assessed in a report last month by researchers at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. They found that while hate crimes overall climbed 5 percent in 2015, crimes targeting Muslims soared 78 percent, with a comparable increase projected this year.
So far in 2016, reported hate crimes against Muslims in Minnesota are on track to match last year’s totals, according to data through Oct. 24 reviewed by the Star Tribune — even as overall hate crimes are projected to remain at levels that are down nearly a third from 2013.
The actual number of hate crimes is thought to be much higher than reported by law enforcement: The latest national telephone survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported 293,790 hate crimes in 2012 compared with 5,796 incidents reported by the FBI that same year.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, attributes the recent nationwide surge in anti-Muslim activity to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2014, high-profile terror attacks in the United States and Europe, and presidential campaign rhetoric.
“We’re quite awash in anti-Muslim hate right now,” Potok said. “It seems many Muslims feel that when they walk out the door, if they’re not exactly taking their life in their hands, they’re facing a hostile world.”
Not letting it slide anymore
Wako and others at the Tawfiq Center initially hesitated to report the bomb threat, not wanting to publicize the hatred or subject the Twin Cities’ large Oromo community to a fresh trauma in its new homeland.
That hesitation is not uncommon, Potok said, but it is something members of Minnesota’s Muslim community and federal law enforcement are trying to fight.
Officials hope more people step forward like Asma Jama, the Somali-American woman who was struck with a beer mug at a restaurant in Coon Rapids last fall, to lend a personal voice to the statistics. Jama has since joined the nonprofit Voice of East African Women, which hosted last week’s forum with federal authorities, and is urging more victims to come forward.
“I didn’t choose to be a victim of a hate crime,” Jama said last week. “But I did choose to speak out.”
At the same meeting, another woman who leads a local nonprofit said she first laughed off an e-mail from a man claiming to be a trained sniper — until she saw a colleague crying after reading the same threat.
The rise in reported hate crimes may be a product of rising tensions, but it may also be the result of a community increasingly comfortable with bringing their concerns to law enforcement.
“People aren’t willing to let it slide anymore,” said Dan Genck, supervisory special agent of the FBI’s civil rights division in Minneapolis.
The FBI takes the lead on investigations into federal civil rights violations and works with state, local and tribal authorities on investigations even when federal charges aren’t filed.
Department of Justice officials monitor state hate-related prosecutions and can decide to later add federal charges. Shortly after two Somali-American men were shot in Dinkytown in June, by a man who allegedly singled them out for their Muslim garb, the FBI began investigating the crime as a possible hate crime.
Anthony Sawina is in Hennepin County jail awaiting trial on state assault charges stemming from the shooting. The FBI is reviewing the case for potential federal civil rights charges, Genck said.
Pastor reaches out
When federal agents began looking into the threat mailed to the Tawfiq Center, they were able to trace prints on the letter to a man who lived near the mosque, Daniel George Fisher, who is now expected to plead guilty to federal charges. Fisher told authorities he didn’t sign his name to the note because he wanted Tawfiq’s staff to think that anyone in the neighborhood could have wished to see the mosque destroyed.
Months before details of the case became public, Wako opened another letter. It was from a Lutheran pastor writing to express solidarity after the December shootings in San Bernardino prompted calls by some for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
“Please know that we are appalled and deeply saddened by the divisive and inaccurate rhetoric flooding this nation that we each call home,” the pastor wrote.
The letter is now posted near the doorway of Wako’s office. It’s one of the last items Wako sees whenever he leaves.
“This is our community,” Wako said. “We’re not going anywhere.”