Somali men lingered at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Civic Center at the end of the Saturday prayer.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Fartun Ahmed, president of the youth organization at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Civic Center

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

A test of faith

  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • July 12, 2009 - 6:36 PM

It's Friday night in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, and about 15 young men and boys are sitting in an upper room at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Civic Center, listening to the imam read from the Sahih Al-Bukhari -- the Authentic Tradition of the Prophet. As the boys lounge and peek at messages on their phones, the imam occasionally snaps his fingers as a call for silence. When the imam finishes reading, the boys ask questions, such as, "How should I wash before prayer?" Mosques such as Dar Al-Hijrah have long been trusted sanctuaries where Somali young people go to pray, study scripture and socialize with fellow Muslims. For a generation of Somali refugees in America, they've also been a haven from drugs, gangs and violence.

But in the months since as many as 20 young Somali men from the Twin Cities disappeared, possibly to fight in their homeland, some parents are reassessing the relationship between the mosques and their children. Some now stay at mosques during classes instead of simply dropping off their children. Others quiz their kids about their lessons. Still others have taken the once-unimaginable step of removing their children from mosque schools altogether.

"I've never seen people questioning so much," said Hussein Samatar, head of the African Development Center of Minnesota, who pulled his 13-year-old son from the weekend Islamic school run by a local mosque shortly after he learned that a nephew was among the missing.

"It is very deep. People are reflecting on what happened and on many levels. ... For the most part, people cannot understand how this is possible."

Mosques have long been revered by Somali families for their role in developing character. For a generation of parents who fled their war-torn country for the United States, they've also been a tool for preserving culture, values and faith.

Mosques and their teachers are so highly respected, in fact, that they are rarely questioned, said Ahmed Hosh, who works with Somali youth in Columbus, Ohio, home to the nation's second-largest Somali settlement behind Minneapolis.

"Parents trust teachers in total," Hosh said.

That trust was shaken last fall after news broke that federal authorities were investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of a 26-year-old Somali man from Minneapolis who killed himself in a suicide bombing in northern Somalia.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said that man, Shirwa Ahmed, apparently was indoctrinated and radicalized in Minneapolis. Mueller did not say specifically where that happened. Ahmed and many of the missing, however, were known to worship at local mosques, including Abubakar as-Saddique, the largest Somali mosque in the Twin Cities.

In late November, federal officials put Abubakar's imam and youth director on a "no-fly" list and stopped them from boarding a flight to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

At about the same time, Hussein Samatar pulled his son from mosque-run classes, after he learned that a relative, Burhan Hassan, was among the missing.

"Burhan is our nephew ... We could not understand how a bright 17-year-old who has all the future to make it great in his life, is not here anymore," he said.

Samatar and his wife still worship at Abubakar, but their son goes to a different weekend school in St. Paul.

"I love my mosque," Samatar said, adding that he has seen no evidence that the mosque influenced anyone to go to Somalia.

"But we were not comfortable with the whole idea of how did this happen?" he said. "So what we as a family opted to do was be safe and make sure we protect our children."

Several other parents who said their children were long-time students at Abubakar expressed fear about what their children might have learned there.

"I did not see any specific teachings that scared me in the beginning, because it is a mosque ... but a new day dawned on us when families we knew had children who were missing," a woman whose children and grandchildren attended Abubakar said through an interpreter.

She added: "We're paranoid right now."

Another woman, also speaking through an interpreter, said: "Since other parents' children are missing and gone, I am afraid for my children as well."

Her decision to pull two teenage children and a teenage grandchild was not easy, she said.

"It's déjà vu," said the woman, who fled Somalia in the mid-'90s. "We feel like we are fleeing again."

A Twin Cities Somali businessman who would give only his first name of Abdiahmed said he also took his children out of Abubakar.

"We feel the anguish and the sadness," he said.

Rather than take their children to another mosque school, he and other families are teaching the Qur'an at home.

"I don't trust any of them," Abdiahmed said.

More accountability

Since the news first broke about the missing Minneapolis men, imams in other U.S. cities with large Somali populations have scrambled to reassure families that they are not engaged in radical teachings.

Hassan Mohamud, imam of the Da-wah Islamic Center of Minnesota in St. Paul, said leaders there worried that attendance would fall after rumors began to spread about why the young men left.

"But the good thing is we gave sermons and speeches at the Friday services and explained that people have to be calm and not worry about these rumors," Mohamud said.

Farhan (Omar) Hurre, director of Abubakar, has acknowledged that some of the men who abruptly left the Twin Cities worshiped there. He said the mosque preaches peace and had no role in their disappearance.

Hurre and others at the mosque say the disappearance of the men has had no noticeable impact on mosque attendance. Daily prayer services are frequently well-attended, he said, and weekend classes for children are full. Five hundred children are on a waiting list, Hurre said.

One man who has four children enrolled in weekend classes at Abubakar said fears about the mosque's teachings are overblown and fueled by rumors started by a rival Somali clan.

"I have no concern for this mosque whatsoever," said the man, who asked not to be identified. "They have not done anything wrong."

Another parent, Mohamud Mohamed, said he remains confident in the instruction his son is receiving from Abubakar teachers.

"There is always some drama [involving Abubakar], but it doesn't concern me. I see my son as learning the Qur'an and that's what I want," he said.

Fartun Ahmed, 18, and a student at Century College, said she cannot imagine a life that doesn't include her mosque, Dar Al-Hijrah.

"It's a part of us," she said.

What happened to the missing men, she said, should not drive people away.

"It was people who left, not the mosque," she said.

Mosque leaders must ensure that they are accountable for what they teach and for the messages within their walls, said Abdisalam Adam, director of Dar Al-Hijrah.

Anxiety surrounding the investigation should remind mosque leaders to spread a positive message to young Somalis, Adam said.

"'You are an American Muslim. Islam is here. You have all these opportunities and need to develop yourselves,'" he said. "This is home. This is our future -- here." • 612-673-7428 • 612-673-4425 • 612-673-4488

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