At his south Minneapolis mosque, Imam Sa’ad Roble has expanded his sermons lately with a new message: Don’t idle outside the building after midnight prayers. Don’t walk alone after dark. Know who you can call in a crisis.
Roble’s admonition is just one sign of the extraordinary new precautions Minnesota Muslims are taking as they react to a string of disturbing recent incidents, including this month’s deadly attack outside a London mosque and the Portland, Ore., stabbing of two men who came to the defense of a Muslim woman.
Across the Twin Cities, other imams report depressed attendance at prayer services, and federal law enforcement authorities are ramping up outreach efforts to the Somali community. Basim Sabri, landlord of the Karmel Mall, where Roble’s mosque is located, has hired extra security guards.
“I have never in my life increased the amount of security personnel like we have now,” Sabri said. “We’re concerned, and we’re taking extra measures to ensure safety in our community.”
The fears are not misplaced, according to new crime data obtained by the Star Tribune. The state’s law enforcement agencies reported 14 anti-Muslim incidents last year — a record. More troubling, they are becoming increasingly violent: Nearly half of last year’s incidents involved bodily harm to victims, state figures show, far higher than in previous years.
Many Minnesota Muslims have not shaken the memory of last year’s most serious attack, which bore a chilling resemblance to more recent cases of late-night bloodshed in other states. In the early morning hours of June 29, 2016, a 26-year-old Lauderdale man fired a volley of bullets into a car carrying five young Somali men near Dinkytown in southeast Minneapolis. Two were shot in the legs and a bullet missed striking another in the head. Federal authorities investigated the incident as a possible hate crime, and this month a Hennepin County judge sentenced Anthony Sawina to 39 years in prison after a jury convicted him of nine counts of assault and attempted first- and second-degree murder.
The popular neighborhood near the University of Minnesota campus was the site of more violence last week. Hodan Hassan, a mental health practitioner who once served with Roble on the state’s Somali-American Task Force, said a man attacked her 22-year-old niece after following her away from Mesa Pizza. Hassan said her niece, who did not want to talk about the attack, had to be treated for a concussion and was hospitalized for two nights. Minneapolis police are investigating.
“Ever since this incident happened, I haven’t been out on my own at night,” Hassan said.
Last week, for the first time, the national Council On American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) made its safety guidelines brochure public; for many years it distributed hard copies only to community leaders. The civil rights organization warned Muslim-Americans to stay vigilant and step up personal security measures during the final days of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, a celebration that marks the end of the fasting month.
“I don’t think we have seen this level of apprehension in the American-Muslim community, even after 9/11,” said Ibrahim Hooper, one of CAIR’s founders. “You don’t want to give people an idea of all your security measures, but it was so important now that we decided to put it out in full.”
Praying at home
At the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis, one of the state’s largest mosques, executive director Abdullahi Farah said attendance dwindled noticeably after a Muslim man was stabbed nearby and a woman was robbed at gunpoint after midnight prayers. The incidents have not officially been labeled hate crimes, but they left congregants rattled and anxious.
“People are choosing to pray at home [rather] than at the mosque,” Farah said. Even so, he and his team are not faltering. They hired a security company to patrol the mosque through the night and have enlisted an off-duty police officer to help with security.
This year the mosque is considering new security measures, including a change of venue, for its Eid prayers, which attract nearly 20,000 congregants. Farah met Thursday with Minneapolis police, and a department spokesperson said precinct inspectors asked for extra patrols in areas that have a large population of Muslims for the weekend.
Plans for another annual event, the Masjid Shaafici Cultural Center’s outdoor Eid prayers in Currie Park, are unchanged, despite requests from some worshipers to move it inside this year, said Imam Abdighani Ali.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota is also responding. Attorneys there plan to meet with officials from the U.S. Homeland Security Department’s Protective Security Advisors (PSA) to discuss outreach in the local Somali community. While details are not final, the PSA could advise local faith leaders on security vulnerabilities at places of worship or community centers and help recommend improvements.
“Enforcement of hate crimes [law] is still a major component of the office,” Acting U.S. Attorney Greg Brooker said. “We need to reassure folks, and we are still here.”
FBI officials in Minneapolis are also planning a summer discussion with local Muslims on safety measures after hearing multiple concerns about youths being harassed in public.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Council of Churches will repeat its “Blessed Ramadan” yard sign campaign this year, and reports heightened interest in its annual Taking Heart cross-cultural gatherings. Some 1,300 people registered for multifaith Iftar dinners in 23 Minnesota communities, said the Rev. Cynthia Bronson.
“More people are saying I really want to come to show my solidarity,” she said. “I want Muslims to understand not everybody thinks that way.”
‘I’m just normal people’
For others, even appearing to be Muslim is enough to become a target. Raji Dinka, a 26-year-old electrical engineering student at the University of Minnesota, was driving home one evening last November after dropping a friend off in Blaine, when he said he was nearly run off the road by a man in a pickup truck. The man shouted profanities at Dinka, calling him a “[expletive] ISIS” and saying “go back to Africa.”
Dinka, who immigrated to Minnesota from Ethiopia in 2014, is a Christian. But one stranger’s glance and actions, nonetheless, made him feel his life was threatened. Dinka said he now tries not to venture too far outside Minneapolis.
“He doesn’t know my story,” he said.
Dinka added, however, that he was heartened by the response of a Blaine police officer, who consoled him after he took the nearest exit and called 911. The officer gave Dinka his card and offered to escort him home.
“You don’t have to love me, but don’t hate me,” Dinka said. “I’m just normal people, man.”