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Imam Mohamed Mukhtar lives right across the street from his mosque in Bloomington. In the evenings, the 50-year-old typically walks to Dar Al Farooq for the evening prayer and joins other regular congregants to pray. His wife and kids sometimes go for a walk around the block in the meantime.

But on a Thursday in early August, when Imam Mohamed walked to the mosque as usual, two teenagers came up from behind and started kicking and punching him. One of them broke the imam’s shoulder while he tried to break free. Security cameras at the mosque captured the attack. Police later said that teenagers were probably trying to rob him. But after they realized he didn’t have anything to steal, they left him on the street and ran. 

Imam Mohamed trudged toward the entrance of the mosque, leaving behind his shoes, glasses, and hat, which were knocked off during the attack. His wife and kids saw his belongings on the ground from a distance. When the imam’s young daughter picked up the shoes, she instantly knew they were her dad’s. The family called 911 and an ambulance took Imam Mohamed to M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital.

Congregants at Dar Al Farooq weren’t surprised an imam was attacked on his way to prayer: They’ve suffered attacks of all kinds for almost 10 years now. But they were worried nonetheless. And perhaps moreso, they were frustrated about a missed opportunity that could have helped prevent the attack. 

In the middle of last year, Dar Al Farooq had successfully applied for a $100,000 federal security grant. But the funds never arrived. Mohamed Omar, the executive director of Dar Al Farooq, said the mosque planned to use those funds to hire a security guard, install more security cameras, and improve door locks. The security guard, for example, might have deterred the teenagers who attacked Imam Mohamed that night, Mohamed Omar said.

After an eight-month delay, Mohamed Omar finally got an update about the grant—a week after the assault on the imam.

Two teenagers were charged in connection with the attack on Imam Mohamed. He told police that the assailants kicked and hit him, fracturing his left shoulder, according to a complaint warrant filed at the Hennepin County Court. The 16-year-old suspect told police that he didn’t hit the imam, but just “shook him up” and that it was all “dumb fun.” 

The suspect remains in custody at the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center. No other information was available about the other alleged attacker, who was identified as being 13 years old.

“Based on statements from the victim and one of the suspects, we do not believe at this time bias or hate was a motivating factor,” Bloomington Police said in a press release.

The same day the arrest warrant was filed, Governor Tim Walz, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, and Attorney General Keith Ellison joined faith community leaders at a press conference condemning the attack on Imam Mohamed. For Walz, the appearance brought up recent memories: The officials had appeared together to condemn a firebombing at the mosque in 2017.

“Dar Al Farooq is not defined by that bombing. Imam Mukhtar is not defined by an attack as he went to worship. But Minnesota could be,” Walz said.

Nonetheless, Dar Al Farooq has been shaped in part by the attacks the congregation has suffered since opening in 2011. And it’s not just violent attacks. Dar Al Farooq has found itself under the microscope of a neighbor who runs a blog tracking (mostly traffic-related) complaints about the mosque since it opened. 

Recently, an unidentified man set up camp in a park behind the mosque and raised a Confederate flag on a nearby tree. Mosque leaders say these incidents add up to an effort to intimidate, and sometimes harm, Muslims in Bloomington. 

“It just increased the level of fear that our community has, and set the narrative that we are under attack all the time,” Mohamed Omar, the executive director, said. “It’s either a media attack or a physical attack. That’s what we have been dealing with.”

‘It’s totally out of control’: Neighbors complain about mosque traffic and an unmowed lawn

Dar Al Farooq opened in 2011 at the former site of Lutheran Concordia High School in Bloomington. The 10-acre site also serves as a community center and a K–6 charter school called Success Academy. Friday prayers attract up to 1,000 congregants. 

But the mosque seemingly hums with activity at all times, whether it be congregational daily prayers, Islamic education classes, or speaker events. Community members can also receive free food at the mosque’s food shelf.

Dar Al Farooq serves as a mosque, community center, and charter school in Bloomington. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

According to Mohamed Omar, most of the members live in the south suburbs: Bloomington, Edina, Eden Prairie, and Richfield. Many employees from the Mall of America and Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport frequent the mosque. The mission of the Dar Al Farooq, Mohamed Omar said, is to provide a space where Muslims of all ages can learn, serve, and connect with each other.

Ahmed Hudle is a 29-year-old parent liaison at Success Academy. He goes to the mosque five days a week as a volunteer at the community center, where he helps interpret forms and paperwork for elderly visitors.

“You feel at home when you’re there. You feel like you’re part of a community. It’s a place where you can come and talk to people,” Ahmed said.

Yet that peace of mind—a sense of being “home”—keeps yielding to a widespread sense of fear among the congregation, Ahmed said.

In the mosque’s early years they mostly stayed quiet and kept to themselves, according to Mohamed Omar.

The mosque first found itself under media fire around 2014, when a group of young Somali Americans—a few who’d attended Dar Al Farooq—were charged for conspiring to join ISIS and other terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq.

That attracted a lot of media attention to the mosque from local and national news outlets, which made it hard for the mosque to keep a low profile, said Sophia Rashid, a volunteer at Dar Al Farooq and data coordinator for the interfaith social justice group ISAIAH.

The mosque also came under constant scrutiny from a neighbor, Sally Ness: a sort of neighborhood point person for filing complaints involving the mosque. Ness started a blog in 2016 that documented five years of public information she collected from the city. This file “poses several questions concerning responsible land use” at Dar Al Farooq, Ness said in a Facebook post. 

“They said there would be prayer for one hour on a Friday; they did not say it would be going through the night … We never had a say in it. What about the neighborhood?”

Sally ness, neighborhood blogger

The blog posts mostly involve traffic complaints, supplemented with photos she’s taken at the mosque. (Ness did not respond to multiple interview requests from Sahan Journal.)

Before Dar Al Farooq opened, the Star Tribune later reported, Ness attended almost every city council meeting to raise objections. She said the group “lied” in its permit application about the scope of the mosque’s activities and the number of people who would use the building.

“It’s totally out of control,” she said. “They said there would be prayer for one hour on a Friday; they did not say it would be going through the night … We never had a say in it. What about the neighborhood?”

In a post from August 2019 titled “Semi problems continue,” Ness wrote about an apparent Dar Al Farooq patron driving a semi-truck down Park Avenue.

“Semis should not be in the neighborhood and yet they continue to drive into the neighborhood,” Ness wrote. “Dar Al Farooq and the City do not address it.​”

Ness posted 22 photos of the truck, Park Avenue, and other cars parked along the road.

“And yes, the lawn in the picture is not mowed,” Ness wrote under a photo of the truck stopped in front of Dar Al Farooq.

Other Bloomington residents rallied behind Ness, and filed a petition with the Bloomington City Council against the mosque in July 2016. They asserted that the mosque intentionally violates terms of its permit. The city council did not find any violations at play and did not address the petition.

At the meeting, attorney Larry Frost represented Ness and other Bloomington residents who signed the petition, City Pages reported.

The Lutheran high school that used to operate in the building Dar al-Farooq now occupies never had any problems, Frost said. “The neighbors thought they were good neighbors. It wasn’t an issue. Dar Al Farooq is not a good neighbor.”

‘It’s hard to explain to the little kids why this person is taking pictures of them’

Sophia saw Ness the first time she visited Dar Al Farooq for the Eid holiday in August 2013.

“Sally Ness was there walking around with a video camera, videotaping everyone she could who was walking to the mosque,” Sophia said. “I was so shocked because she was walking around sort of mumbling to herself angrily.”

Sophia was alarmed, but her friends who had been going to Dar Al Farooq for much longer had brushed it off. They were used to seeing Ness with a camera.

“Videotaping congregants has been a longtime thing,” Sophia said. “It was something that we, unfortunately, just had to accept as part of going to the mosque.”

Around September 2019, mosque leaders alerted authorities that Ness and other locals allegedly photographed children from the mosque playing at Smith Park, a green space with a playground near Success Academy used during recess. 

 “It’s like someone is coming and attacking your home, the place you choose to worship, and the place you bring your kids.”

Idil Farah, success academy parent

Idil Farah, who lives a few blocks away, goes to the mosque and community center at Dar Al Farooq about three times a week. She usually visits the Success Academy’s school garden with her kids. One of them, who is 13 years old, is a student at Success Academy.

“You would see a lady out there taking pictures,” Idil said. “It’s hard to explain to the little kids why this person is taking pictures of them. It’s not a conversation you want to have with kids.”

Idil believes this experience unintentionally exposed children to “hatred” earlier than they’re supposed to be. They shouldn’t have to be exposed to hate at all, she said.

“It makes me feel uneasy. It’s like someone is coming and attacking your home, the place you choose to worship, and the place you bring your kids,” Idil said. “Why would somebody choose this one place? Not the Walmart next door, not the houses next door, not the churches next door—they come for the community center.”

Abdinasir Mohamud, a postal worker who lives in the neighborhood, has also seen people taking photos of kids. 

“We have a very nasty environment, hostile neighbors,” he said. “Especially when I have my children and family, I feel like I’m putting them at risk bringing them to Dar Al Farooq.” Abdinasir added that he was especially concerned about a potential school shooting when schools were open.

Members of Dar Al Farooq took action once their children were involved, alerting the city. The Bloomington City Council responded by banning people from intentionally taking a photograph or recording a child without a parent’s consent. 

Ness tried to challenge that ordinance, citing First Amendment rights, but a federal court sided with the city.

A firebombing strikes Dar Al Farooq

Congregants thought that photographing children crossed a line. But Sophia said they hadn’t found the courage to challenge people like Ness until after the mosque was firebombed in August 2017.

Three Illinois men were charged for the crime: Michael McWhorter, 29; Joe Morris, 22; and Michael Hari, 47. The FBI said Hari built a pipe bomb, rented a pickup truck in the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area of Illinois, and drove 500 miles with the others to Bloomington. There, the FBI said, the alleged attackers used a sledge hammer to smash an  office window, and threw a PVC pipe bomb into the building.

The bombing resulted in no injuries. But the community was left shaken.

According to an affidavit from the FBI, McWhorter said they committed the bombing to “show them, ‘Hey, you’re not welcome here.’”

The FBI reported that the Illinois men, who identified with a group called the “White Rabbit Militia,”  didn’t intend to kill. But they wanted to “scare [Muslims] out of the country … because they push their beliefs on everyone else.”

Sophia said the attack had hit her so hard that she stopped going to the mosque for almost nine months.

“I remember turning on the news and before they said it was Al Farooq, I knew it was Al Farooq,” Sophia said of the bombing. “It was really an attack on the heart of the Muslim community here. I remember bursting into tears, I was just shaking.”

The trial for Hari, the alleged ringleader of the bombing, has been postponed to November because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dar Al Farooq raised almost $100,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to repair the damages at the mosque, according to Mohamed Omar. After the bombing, the executive director said, he had security cameras installed and implemented a “neighborhood watch” system run by volunteers from the mosque. The mosque also started to install a mass shooter suppression system. This technology detects weapons on the premises and sounds an alarm if an active shooter is present. 

The new safety measures helped somewhat, Mohamed Omar said. But it wasn’t a feasible way to secure a 6,000-square-foot area. On top of that, members of the mosque said the attacks that followed continue to sow fear.

“Just walking through halls, you can’t help but remember the video of the bombing,” Sophia said. Sometimes, when she’s meeting with the imam in the office, Sophia looks out the window and thinks: That’s where the bomb was thrown.

Waiting for a federal security grant to pay for a security guard

After the bombing, Mohamed Omar said he became frustrated by the lack of solutions to make the mosque as safe as it could be. 

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Mohamed Omar said. “That’s the biggest problem that we have: We don’t know what the right question is to ask.”

Imam Asad Zaman, the executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, collaborated with Mohamed Omar and other mosque leaders to find ways to better secure their mosques. One channel became a Federal Emergency Management Agency security grant, administered through the state Department of Public Safety. 

“It was only after we made a stink about it, after Dar Al Farooq was bombed, that we were informed about how to apply for the grant,” Zaman said.

FEMA security grants are administered through the state Department of Public Safety. No mosque in Minnesota had ever received the grant, until three mosques—including Dar Al Farooq and the Muslim American Society of Minnesota—won approval in January. 

No mosque had received the grant, Zaman suggested, because no mosque in Minnesota even knew about it. The application window for FEMA grants, he soon learned, opens for just one month a year and the paperwork is complicated. The process overall is “amazingly non-transparent,” he concluded.

Once they were approved by FEMA, Zaman and Mohamed Omar waited to receive a signed contract from the state Department of Public Safety. This step would authorize the mosques to use those funds on security spending. They both waited eight months. 

For Mohamed Omar, $100,000 was on the line. Some of that money would go to pay a security guard that the congregation otherwise couldn’t afford. The security guard typically worked as a volunteer during school hours. 

The security guard could have been working the night Imam Mohamed Mukhtar was attacked.

Mohamed Omar said that people of color often encounter these barriers while trying to access  government resources. White-led organizations find their needs are addressed more efficiently, he added. 

The timeline for receiving the grant varies and is dependent upon the organization’s individual application process, according to Amber Schindeldecker, a spokesperson from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. 

Approved organizations are actually authorized to use grant funds when they’re initially approved by FEMA in January, according to Schindeldecker. Organizations can apply for reimbursement even if there is no grant agreement on file with the state for how the funds will be spent. Sometimes, she said, FEMA requires additional documentation. 

Zaman and Mohamed Omar did not see their approved agreements until August—and did not spend any of the security money until then.

The process is convoluted, said Michael Kuhne, president of Mount Zion, a synagogue in St. Paul. Mount Zion has received the FEMA security grant for the past two years. (Jewish groups across the country stepped up security after the 2018 mass shooting at Tree of Life temple in Pittsburgh.) 

Kuhne said that his congregation also waited a while to get the grant. “But I think Dar Al Farooq’s timeline is worse,” he noted.

It takes experience to navigate the grant system—or money to pay a professional grant writer and administrator. Dar Al Farooq didn’t even learn about the grant until its building got firebombed. Kuhne suggested the government could do more to publicize security grants and make them more accessible.

Zaman took note when the funding finally came through in August. “There was zero response until the governor came to Dar Al Farooq,” he said.

Bloomington responds: ‘Nothing that we do is going to prevent these sort of random things from happening’

While Dar Al Farooq waited for security funds, business at the mosque continued as usual: both routine and uneasy. Ness continued to update her blog. In a February post, she discussed whether the mosque has a license to serve food. 

Over the summer, a Confederate Flag appeared in Smith Park. A man set up a tent and hung the flag from a tree. Police say the park frequently attracts suspicious activity; Mohamed Omar called the stunt an attempt to intimidate members of his mosque.

The assault on Imam Mohamed Mukhtar struck some members of Dar Al Farooq as a hate-motivated attack. Others wondered if the imam had simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

According to Bloomington Police Deputy Chief Mike Hartley, the facts collected through interviews with the victim and suspects don’t point to bias as a factor in the assault. Hartley admitted that, at first, he thought the attack on the imam could very well have been a hate-motivated attack. But the investigation revealed otherwise.

“The public gets charged up over different things,” Hartley said. “That was the general thought, that it had to have been just because of the proximity to Dar Al Farooq.”

Mohamed Omar said he trusts the Bloomington Police Department’s judgement, but he’s still concerned.

The hostile environment around the mosque has felt relentless. According to the Bloomington city manager, Jamie Verbrugge, the city tries to keep the congregation safe. 

“The pipe bomb in 2017, the imam being assaulted, those are unpredictable, episodic events that we can’t really plan for. Nothing that we do is going to prevent these sort of random things from happening,” Verbrugge said. “The thing that we can do is enhance the sense of community.”

Bloomington residents routinely show their support for Dar Al Farooq by standing outside of the mosque with signs expressing solidarity during Friday prayers. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Verbrugge said that some communities of color may feel reluctant to call authorities for help. So city officials regularly meet with mosque leaders and attend events at Dar Al Farooq to help create a relationship. Verbrugge added that members of Dar Al Farooq have also “made the effort to be a good neighbor.”

Sophia said she felt her own concerns for Dar Al Farooq were legitimized by the city and state after the bombing. “They’ve shown a desire to want to protect the community, but unfortunately it’s still seen that protecting us is sometimes political,” Sophia said. “It shouldn’t be political to protect a place of worship.”

Mohamed Omar echoed that concern and added that he hasn’t seen any effort from elected officials to counter the source of the hostility swirling around the community center: Islamophobia. 

“Every other politician who supports you, they will come to you and they will talk about how bad this is and how horrible this is,” Mohamed Omar said. But “there’s no system in place, nothing practical that could stop Islamophobia.”

On the other hand, Islamophobes enjoy a network of money and media mouthpieces. And no one holds this system accountable.

City Pages published a story in September on how Minnesota Republican operatives sow distrust of Muslims. For example, City Pages reported the president of Alpha News, Alex Kharam, is also the executive director of the Freedom Club, a major Republican donor and activist group in Minnesota. 

Alpha News, a conservative news organization based in Minnesota, has published stories calling the Bloomington mosque bombing an inside job. 

“The ‘bombing’ has disappeared from the ‘news’ even more completely than the fake Russia narrative,” Alpha News reported in September 2017. “Dar Al-Farooq, the mosque in question, had a bomb, later described as an IED, explode at five in the morning, mostly damaging the Imam’s office in early August. The timing and the location were both curious but curiosity is the last thing that describes coverage of this incident.”

Mohamed Omar called this an example of “tangible Islamophobia.” 

Mohamed Omar describes something more than a single relentless blogger with a camera, or a  Confederate camping in Smith Park. “It’s not just about two neighbors,” he said. “It’s coming from planted seeds of structural Islamophobia and hate.”

Explaining Islamophobia to teenagers

Sophia Rashid recently spoke with a group of girls at the mosque, ranging from ages 15 to 25, and asked them if they had ever experienced Islamophobia. All 20 of the young women said they had. But some of them had never talked about it until that day. Sophia said this conversation showed how common it is for all Muslims, even religious leaders, to experience Islamophobia and hate crimes.

“We’ve learned to numb ourselves of our own trauma,” Sophia said. “Every instance like the one with the imam, I can’t even imagine how many are out there who don’t make the news.”

With each act of harassment and each new attack, Sophia said she grows accustomed to the hostility that surrounds her mosque. What scares her now is an attack on Dar Al Farooq that’s even more dramatic and violent than what’s already occurred. 

After the assault on the imam, Sophia said, she keeps returning to the same thought: “What else is coming?”

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Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal and corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of...