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Mohamed Omar opened a piece of mail last September that cemented the conviction he’d made — the conviction that forgiveness was the only path forward.
“Imam,” the letter began. “Hi my name is Michael McWhorter and I am one of the three people who bombed the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center. My job in the bombing was to lite and throw the bomb in the window.”
In his childlike cursive, a jailed McWhorter wrote and wrote and wrote: seven pages detailing his remorse, his recognition of Omar’s pain, and an explanation — but not a justification — of how McWhorter came to leave his small central Illinois town to carry out a horrific attack on Omar’s Bloomington mosque, despite not even knowing what a mosque was.
The words “apologize” and “sorry” flowed onto the lined paper nine times. The 33-year-old described a disconnect between how he saw himself and the man who, five years ago, firebombed a house of worship.
“I have to remind myself that it’s real and I did these things to completely harmless people who have never done anything to me. I can’t change what I have done, I’m a terrorist for life now,” he wrote. “That is my fault and I accept that.”
Holding the letter, Omar believed McWhorter’s apology was sincere.
“As a Muslim, when somebody asks me to forgive them, it is actually more rewarding to forgive them than when you just hold your grudge,” the imam told me. “It was very powerful.”
No one could fault Omar, the mosque’s executive director, if he were to harbor anger toward his attackers for the rest of his life. But during the holy month of Ramadan, the imam displayed an astonishing act of kindness. He publicly forgave McWhorter and co-defendant Joe Morris and asked a judge for clemency at their April 12 sentencing. The two men, who had pleaded guilty to various federal felonies, received prison sentences of 16 and 14 years, far shy of the statutory minimum of 35 years.
Imam Mohamed Omar, left, and Anders Folk, then the acting U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, emerged from the federal courthouse last September after a judge sentenced Emily Hari to 53 years in prison for orchestrating the bombing of Omar’s mosque.
Many of us have a hard time letting go of bitterness, even toward loved ones for far lesser transgressions. I asked Omar: Why did you forgive your attackers?
“We forgive each other because we want to be better — better together,” he responded.
But we don’t forget, Omar added. Forgetting would be impossible.
On Aug. 5, 2017, Omar was in his office preparing for morning prayers when the black-powder pipe bomb exploded in the next room. It tore through furniture, shook the cinderblock walls and extensively damaged the building.
He recalls being in a daze as he answered questions from law enforcement, still in shock from the blast. No one was injured is how we journalists have measured the human toll from the explosion, but that doesn’t account for the emotional harm and unease that still reverberate for Omar and Minnesota’s Muslim community.
“I’m living every day with the trauma I inherited, the scars it left,” he said.
Omar feels it each time he prays. In what should be a time of undivided focus and self-reflection, his mind scuttles with worry. He wonders how he would protect worshipers if the mosque were attacked again.
Mohamed Omar, second from left, prays with fellow worshipers during Ramadan at Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington. Omar’s mind often races to questions of safety as he worries about another attack.
Omar, a 46-year-old native of Somalia who speaks four languages, has been the public face of Dar al-Farooq, appearing at news conferences, courthouse briefings and community gatherings. He’s forged ties with clergy leaders across faiths and neighbors who’ve stood in solidarity with the mosque after the bombing.
But being so public can invite the wrong kind of attention. His wife, fearing that their six children would be targeted by anti-Muslim extremists, moved the family to Egypt.
He’s not naive about the poisonous disinformation on social media and the unrelenting harassment toward American Muslims. A few years back, Omar told me that he feels like he’s living in a prolonged “hate potluck” in which everyone is encouraged to bring a special hatred for Jewish people, Muslims or other marginalized groups.
His mosque has been vilified by far-right websites that have published videos spreading conspiracy theories about Muslims in the United States. One man set up a Confederate flag on a nearby tree. Immediately after the bombing, an adviser to President Donald Trump suggested the bombing of the mosque was “a fake hate crime” staged by the left.
“Every day we’re losing part of our humanity,” Omar said. “There is a real day-to-day fight of existence.”
The attack represented the worst of anti-Muslim toxicity. As the case advanced through the courts, Omar would learn how much of that ideology was embodied by Emily Hari, formerly known as Michael Hari, the militia leader who recruited McWhorter and Morris. Federal prosecutors say Hari, who was sentenced last year to 53 years in prison, was motivated by a hatred for Muslims.
Mohamed Omar, left, greets a worshiper traveling through the Twin Cities as Imam Abdirahman Kariye, middle, looks on during Ramadan at Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center.
In private conversations, prosecutors told Omar how McWhorter and Morris were helping build the government’s case against Hari. Omar also learned how much Hari had manipulated the men, taking advantage of their financial desperation and vulnerability. Morris, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, suffered from undiagnosed schizophrenia.
Hari didn’t tell either of the men what their mission was until they were about an hour away from Bloomington.
Omar said he wanted a justice system that was fair and compassionate, advocating that they not serve another day behind bars. Omar told me his goal “was to fix the problem — not destroy the human being.”
And the problem was the message of hate. That is what needed to be locked up.
So Omar’s mind was already made up when he read the seven-page letter. He was especially touched that while in jail, McWhorter had befriended incarcerated Muslims. He’s also read a book about Islam and found that while there were differences between his religion and Omar’s, “they are more alike than anything.”
The practical motivation behind Omar’s forgiveness is to show other Americans a side of Islam so their hearts may be opened.
By forgiving his attackers, Omar said he was also able to live out his faith and values — as besieged as they are — and heal.
“Yes, every human being likes revenge,” he told me. “But forgiveness is what God loves, and what revives the humanity in us. That is what I felt, and I did it.”