Surveillance cameras captured this image of a suspect in the vandalism of the Moorhead-Fargo Islamic Community Center. Image courtesy of the Moorhead Police Department.

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Imam Hammed Abolaji arrived for morning prayers at 4:40 a.m. Sunday to discover racial slurs, phrases such as “Death to Islam” and “Go to hell,” and a swastika emblazoned in red spray paint on the Moorhead–Fargo Islamic Community Center. The vandal also broke a window at the property, Imam Abolaji told Sahan Journal. 

He thought at first a child had painted on the building. But as he got closer, he realized the content of the messages and that the hate speech circled the entire Islamic Center. Adding to the offense: The vandal struck in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan.

“It’s something that’s unbelievable,” he said. 

Islamic Center video surveillance captures the suspect approaching the mosque shortly after the last member left Saturday evening, April 24. He soon began to vandalize the mosque with spray paint, Abolaji said. While just one person appears on the cameras, the suspect can be seen talking on the phone during the incident, he said. 

A suspect wearing a camouflage jacket, dark ski mask, hat, and sunglasses appears on the surveillance footage, according to the Moorhead Police Department. Moorhead police released still images of the suspect Sunday afternoon. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also assisting in the case, which Moorhead police are calling hate-related. 

Surveillance cameras captured this image of the suspect. Image courtesy of the Moorhead Police Department.

The vandalism echoes another attack experienced by Muslims in Minnesota at their place of worship. In 2017, three white supremacists firebombed the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center, in Bloomington, Minnesota. An imam was assaulted last summer outside the islamic center, after prayers. 

The Moorhead—Fargo Islamic Community Center is a mosque and community gathering place. It has been located at 2215 12th Avenue South in Moorhead for about three years, Abolaji said. It’s a welcoming home for religious and cultural education. The mosque, he said, frequently welcomes visitors. 

“It is way more than just a mosque, it is a place where we try to educate everybody about Islam,” he said.  

A growing Muslim presence 

The Muslim community is growing in Fargo–Moorhead. There are about 15,000 Muslims in the area, Abolaji estimates. The congregation at the Moorhead Fargo Islamic Community Center includes members from Iraq, Somalia, and West Africa. 

“We all work together as one even though we have different backgrounds,” Abolaji, who is from West Africa, said. 

Hukun Dabar is a mosque member and executive director of the nonprofit Afro American Development Association, in Moorhead. He called for solidarity in a Facebook post condemning the “cowardly and hateful” attack. 

“An attack on one of our communities in Moorhead is an attack on all of us,” Dabar wrote. “We are one community that loves and values diversity. Our Muslim brothers and sisters deserve to pray and worship their God in peace during this holy month. 2020 has been a challenging year for all of us, especially for our Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities,” Dabar said. 

Abolaji called the hate attack “very rare,” and said the community of Moorhead is typically kind, calm, and tolerant. He said it’s unclear if the attack is related to Ramadan. 

The Muslim community is shocked and freightened by the attack, Abolaji said. Many are worried the vandal will return or could commit other attacks. 

Imam Abolaji said he is calling for peace and trying to stress to people that the attacker is not representative of humanity or people in the Fargo–Moorhead community.

Hate will have no home in Moorhead

 “Hate will not have a home in Moorhead. The words and symbols defacing the Islamic Center are horrifying to view, but we must view them to bear witness and understand the magnitude and depth of how these hate-filled words impact those in our community,” Mayor Shelly Carlson said in a statement. 

Community members plan to clean up the mosque on Monday, once law enforcement has finished gathering evidence. A GoFundMe organized to pay for cleanup and repairs has received more than 500 donations and was approaching its $20,000 goal by Sunday evening. 

Support from the community has been a great help, Abolaji said, and has exceeded his expectations. 

Imam Abolaji said he is calling for peace and trying to stress to people that the attacker is not representative of humanity or people in the Fargo–Moorhead community. He said the mosque believes Moorhead police are working hard to solve the crime. 

The mosque has also established a second GoFundMe dedicated to acquiring security equipment. 

Calls for hate-crime legislation 

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called on law enforcement to investigate the attack as a hate crime. “Our state’s lawmakers must also show that they take growing hate crimes seriously by passing legislation to update how hate incidents are reported and handled,” Jaylani said.

On April 26, the The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organziation, will release a report on more than 6,000 Muslim American civil rights complaints.  

The graffiti on the Islamic Center included racial slurs toward Black people and obscenities. The vandal used sexist language too, crudely painting over the women’s entrance sign to state “Women can’t vote.” 

The Moorhead-Fargo Islamic Community Center was vandalized with hate speech on April 24, in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan.

The graffiti also included the phrase “Kane Lives” and a scorpion symbol: apparent references to Command and Conquer, a video game series that was popular in the 1990s and 2000s, and its villain Commander Kane. 

*This a developing story; please check back for updated information

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...