Minneapolis mosque opening doors to dispel myths

Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center welcomed the public in an effort to dispel rumors after a terrorist suicide of a Somali who attended the mosque.

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Visitor Susanna Decker and Asha Ahmed met mother to mother at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis on Wednesday evening. Decker lives near the mosque, which Ahmed attends. Their children played together while the mothers talked.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Leaders of one the largest mosques in the Twin Cities swung the doors of their mosque wide-open Wednesday in an effort to embrace neighbors, educate the curious and dispel rumors that the mosque is linked to recruiting Somali men to fight in their country's civil war.

"If people don't know one another, they may think something is not good," said Abdirahman Sheikh Omar, president of the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. "We are part of the Minnesota community. We are good citizens. We are taxpayers working for the good of Minnesota society. We are not here to harm anybody."

As more than 200 people ate African and Mideastern food in the mosque's elegant wedding hall, Omar pointed out that many of the Somali immigrants came here to escape war.

"We need to welcome each other. ... We need to help each other."

Members of the Somali community and those who frequent the mosque mingled with more than 80 guests who came for a peek at a culture and religion they knew little about.

Muslims and Lutherans talked about faith. Somali and Anglo mothers talked about their children. And everyone who walked through the door seemed ready to get acquainted with someone far different from themselves.

Henry Lippman, whose daughter lives in the neighborhood, came from St. Paul.

"I'm Jewish," he said. "I grew up recognizing prejudice. I thought it was important to show support. ... I know there has been prejudice against this community and particularly this center."

Rumors connecting the mosque to the missing men surfaced late last fall when news broke about the death of Shirwa Ahmed, a Somali immigrant from Minneapolis who returned to Somalia and killed himself in a suicide attack in October. Ahmed, and some of the other Somali men from Minneapolis who disappeared had spent time at, or had ties to Abubakar, sources in the Somali community have said.

Abubakar officials have said repeatedly over the past three months that the mosque had nothing to do with the disappearances. Yet the rumors, fueled in part by ongoing local and national publicity surrounding a federal investigation, persist.

The publicity brought a barrage of nasty voice-mail messages to the mosque office. The most recent of which were left Tuesday, a day after FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington that Ahmed was one of several suicide bombers in a terrorist attack in Somalia last fall. Although Mueller did not mention Abubakar, he said that Ahmed apparently had been indoctrinated in extremist beliefs while living in Minneapolis.

The callers left messages that said: "You don't belong here," and "You terrorists go back to your country," said Farhan (Omar) Hurre, the mosque director.

"We're trying to build relationships and counter the negative false picture some are trying to portray with the mosque," Hurre said Wednesday.

Standing at the head table in the wedding hall, Hurre minced no words.

He said the disappearances are a tragedy that has left families and friends reeling. But a second tragedy is the "finger-pointing" and implication that the mosque was behind their disappearance.

"This mosque has nothing do with ... Somali politics or indoctrination or recruiting or helping to return these young people to Somali," he said.

Earlier Wednesday, Hurre said mosque leaders have talked among themselves and are convinced nobody on staff influenced the young men.

"To our knowledge we didn't see any specific person who we thought was preaching these ideologies or an extreme version of Islam," he said.

He said it is likelier that the men may have been influenced by something they read or saw on the Internet.

John Ratigan and his wife, Kristin Green, who is eight months pregnant, were thrilled with the center's open house invitation and brought along their brought their 5-year-old daughter, Tona Ratigan Green. "There are a lot of bad stereotypes out there," Green said. "I came here to say I don't share those. ... The people here are real friendly to let all these strangers in here. Our church has never done this."

As the Muslims in the center answered the call for sunset prayers, non-Muslims were invited in. Ruqia Mohamed, a University of Minnesota student who prays at the mosque, sat in the back with the non-Muslims to explain the prayers.

"I'm trying to make it easy for everyone," she said.

She also answered questions about the rumors surrounding the center just as she did recently with an FBI investigator who knocked on her door.

"We're encouraged to go to school, be part of the community and help out and observe our religion.

"The allegations are disturbing," she said. "And the investigators have a right to find out what's going on. ... And parents have right to know what's going on with their missing kids."

Most of the night, however, wasn't spent talking about terrorism. People came to talk about peace and community, including the Rev. Patrick Cabello Hansel from the nearby St. Paul's Lutheran Church. "People in general are afraid of what they don't know," he said. "We're always trying to build bridges."

So is the mosque, Hurre said, noting that leaders hope to meet soon with FBI investigators.

Hurre said the FBI has welcomed the opportunity to meet with mosque leaders, but the two sides have yet to set a date.

"We have talked, and we have agreed to meet," said E.K. Wilson, an FBI agent at the Minneapolis office. "We are continuing to further our outreach efforts, and we welcome the dialogue between the FBI and all community leaders, religious leaders, and elders in the community."

mlsmith@startribune.com • 612-673-4788 richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425

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