The Twin Cities' rapidly growing Muslim population is approaching 150,000.
All eyes were on Fawaz Mohiuddin as he tried to stack cups with his dad, Khader, during Family Fun Night at the Northwest Islamic Community Center. The center currently rents space but is close to closing on a building of its own in Plymouth because it is outgrowing the rented space.
You won't find minarets or domes at the new mosque in Woodbury.
The Islamic Society of Woodbury recently held Friday prayers at the site in an office park behind a Sam's Club store, with about 75 people in attendance. Men arrived in button-down shirts and dress pants from nearby businesses, using their lunch breaks to worship in the small, carpeted space. Women in head scarves and long, flowing clothes sat behind them.
Founded just over a year ago, the mosque makes attending prayers more convenient for the growing Muslim community in Woodbury.
"It's all about location," said co-founder Imani Jaafar-Mohammed. "And we've felt welcome here. There's this feeling that this [the Twin Cities] is home ... where Muslims can practice their faith, have bonds within their faith."
Woodbury is just one example of the diverse Muslim population emerging in the metro area as the number of Muslims approaches 150,000.
Minnesota Muslims played a prominent role in a recent congressional hearing, testifying on opposite sides about the radicalization of Muslims in the United States. Minnesota has the nation's largest Somali Muslim population.
Although Minnesota Muslims have faced instances of harassment, many say the Twin Cities has been an overwhelmingly welcoming place.
"We haven't seen, really, any outright hate and bigotry," said Lori Saroya, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN). "There's such a concentration of Muslims here. The Twin Cities population is pretty diverse, educated. People know a Muslim in their workplace or a neighbor who's a Muslim. So when there's that personal interaction, I think people are less likely to hold any kind of misconceptions or fears of people."
The Muslim community here has grown so quickly that the number of mosques hasn't been able to keep up, Tamim Saidi said. Some mosques must hold multiple prayer services to accommodate worshipers.
The Northwest Islamic Community Center, where Saidi is a board member, is close to buying a building in Plymouth because rented space in Medina is no longer large enough for its nearly 90 Muslim families, and counting.
Saidi said the center has not encountered negative feedback from the outside community.
"For me, 99.9 percent of my experience has been positive," he said.
Catholic and Protestant denominations remain the dominant worship groups in the Twin Cities, and churches still greatly outnumber mosques. But Muslims appear to be gaining on some prominent faiths when it comes to worship attendance, according to the Rev. John Mayer, executive director of the nonprofit group City Vision, which tracks religious data for the metro area.
Catholics have the highest total average number of attendees in the metro area with 278,226. Muslims are second with 150,000, Mayer reports. Non-denominational/independent churches are third with 93,394. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ranks fourth with 86,305.
The numbers look different if attendance isn't factored in. At the statewide level, a Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life study in 2008 found that 32 percent of Minnesotans were mainline Protestants, 28 percent were Catholic, 21 percent were evangelical Protestants. One percent were Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and of black Protestant traditions, with smaller amounts for other faiths. Thirteen percent were unaffiliated.
Mayer said the Muslim population in the Twin Cities began to increase during the 1990s, when refugees from Somalia and other African countries arrived. In 1995, there were at least four mosques and about 20,000 Muslims in the metro area, Mayer said. Now he estimates there are 118 mosques, community centers and other venues where worship services are held.
'Minnesota Nice,' and not
The Twin Cities is attractive to refugees because it has six resettlement agencies, Mayer said. The agencies help refugees find housing, jobs and other necessities in their new homeland.
"Part of it is the 'Minnesota Nice' culture that supports it," Mayer said. "People volunteer here more. You also have jobs here, a good education system."
"On the surface, it's very welcoming, but there's covert racism, behind-your-back kind of racism or antagonism," he said. "But it's easier sometimes to navigate that than open racism. Some places aren't welcoming at all, so it's hard to get started. Here, you can at least get started."
There have been isolated incidents of hate crimes against Muslims here within the past decade: arson at a south Minneapolis mosque, hate messages faxed to the Al-Amal Islamic school in Fridley, a smoke bomb outside a mosque in Columbia Heights.
But more people here are becoming educated about Muslims, said CAIR-MN's Saroya, and Muslims are getting more involved in civic life. Some have run for office, encouraged by the success of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress. Hussein Samatar won a seat on the Minneapolis school board last fall.
To chronicle Muslims' presence in Minnesota, the Islamic Resource Group (IRG) is working on a photographic and oral history project, to be complete by June. Over the past 10 years, IRG has given presentations about Islam to nearly 2,700 churches, businesses and other groups throughout Minnesota.
"A lot of people also don't know there are so many commonalities that exist between Islam, Christianity and Judaism," said Zafar Siddiqui, president of IRG. For example, Islam is a monotheistic religion like Christianity and Judaism, and Muslims worship the God of Abraham.
"There's often a realization in the audiences we present to that, 'Wow, we never knew we had so much in common.'"
Rose French • 612-673-4352