Joachim Savelsberg, a German-born expert on human rights and genocide at the University of Minnesota, cites the aggressive emotions at 2020 campaign rallies. "We focus too much on Trump," he said. "But he got elected." Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Many in the local Muslim community are on edge from recent attacks on four Twin Cities mosques that caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

Two suspects have been arrested for three of the attacks. Jackie Rahm Little is accused in two Minneapolis incidents, and was indicted on arson and a federal hate crime.

Law enforcement authorities haven’t publicly stated the possible motives behind most of the attacks, but have said they don’t appear to be directly related aside from the fires Little allegedly set at Masjid Omar Islamic Center and Mercy Islamic Center in late April. The indictment against Little did not mention a potential motive.

Sahan Journal spoke with University of Minnesota Sociology and Law Professor Joachim Savelsberg to explore why some people act out based on biases and beliefs about a group of people. Now retired, Savelsberg’s academic career spanned four decades and focused heavily on human rights and genocide. He spends half of his time in his native Germany and the other half in St. Paul. 

Speaking via Zoom from his home in Berlin, Savelsberg offered three main reasons for why bias-motivated behavior started trending: a disruptive economy leading to discontent and hatred in some people, the scapegoating of these problems on certain groups of people reinforced by an echo chamber of media and social media, and public figures in positions of high authority who perpetuate this scapegoating through their platforms.

“You see similar trends in other countries,” Savelsberg said. “But it gains a particular edge in the U.S.”

The Minnesota cases also take on another level of complexity, because two of the suspects are people of color. Said Murekezi was charged for setting a fire at the Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center in St. Paul on May 17. Said, who has no permanent address, allegedly told investigators he set the fire to protest homelessness and that the mosque, which was undergoing renovation, could be put to better use. The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office said there is no evidence his alleged crime was motivated by bias.

An unidentified person is still at large for throwing a chunk of concrete multiple times at the glass door of Masjid As Sunnah in St. Paul on May 12. The suspect appears to be a person of color as depicted in surveillance video from the scene.

Savelsberg said it’s possible that resentments that cause people to lash out against a group could “spill over” to immigrant groups. The following conversation with Savelsberg has been edited for length and clarity. 

What is your reaction to the attacks on Twin Cities mosques in recent weeks? 

Sometimes journalists have asked me about the motives of particular individuals, and then I always said, “Well, I can refer you to my psychiatrist colleague.” 

As a sociologist, I’m more concerned with larger patterns. Whenever hate-motivated violence happens, journalism too quickly just switches to focusing on the individual perpetrator and their motives that may be different of sorts, and often miss a broader pattern. The same is true for gun violence. Why was this individual motivated to pick up their machine gun and shoot into the crowd? Rather than, why does this occur again, and again, and again? 

With the attacks on the Somali mosques, I see this as part of a larger pattern of the recent years. We’ve seen increasing hate crimes against Asian Americans. We’ve seen increasing attacks on Jews and synagogues, we’ve seen attacks on Muslims and mosques. It’s often places of worship that are of particular significance, or it’s easily recognizable as such. We have high rates of violence against African Americans, too. 

It’s a pattern and we observe an increase in all of these forms of hate-motivated violence. These four incidents fit perfectly into that pattern into that trend. 

Why are these patterns happening, and why now? 

I think there is a perfect storm at work, and the storm consists of at least three elements.

The first I see as structural reasons. There is a growing number of Americans, especially white Americans, especially white American men, who are discontent. And the reason they are in discontent is part of a result that certain sectors of the economy are in decline. 

It’s also a result of whites soon being a minority in the United States. The increasing portion of immigrant minorities. This generates discontent, it generates hatred. It finds its expression in the white power movement. It finds its expression in militias that we see in a number of places in this country. It finds its expression in the January 6th events when they tried to overturn the election. That’s point number one.

Point number two is the media serving as an echo chamber. We have social media, we have cable news. Fox News plays a particularly evil role. We have talk radio. These are media that reinforce those sentiments of discontent, hatred, and resentment against minorities. 

The third component is that we deal with persons in positions of high authority, beginning with the former President Donald Trump, who used dog whistles. He talked about patriotic education, he talked about China virus, he talked about trying to impose an immigration ban for immigrants from Arab countries. 

They engage in rhetoric in their campaign rallies, in their public appearances, in their legislative efforts. Some, not all, of the people running for the Republican nomination for president right now echo those sentiments strongly. So, you have opinion makers in positions of high authority using their bully pulpit, and they find a receptive audience in those people who are, for structural reasons, discontent. They find willing amplifiers in those media, such as social media, certain cable news, talk radio, that propagate and amplify their messages. 

So, I see a perfect storm consisting of structural reasons that generate discontent in certain segments of the American public, a particular media landscape that serves as an echo chamber, and political actors who try to capitalize on those sentiments, and thereby reinforce them in a vicious, vicious circle.

What is going on locally, nationally, internationally, that could be factored into this behavior?

You see similar trends in other countries. You see trends toward authoritarianism in many places around the globe, not just in Western societies. These types of hate crimes against religious minorities you also find in many European societies, so it’s a pattern that is not limited to the United States. But it gains a particular edge in the U.S. because of the shape that the media landscape takes and because of political actors like Trump and those who are now trying to compete with him. 

So, it’s amplified. You find it in other countries as well. International forces contributing to this, I think, are the decline of the production industry that creates discontent, the IT revolution that advantages some groups in society and disadvantages other groups. The growing internationalization of all societies, cultures, and economies, I think, also has some people gaining and some people at the losing end.

What role does mental health play into this kind of activity?

In general, people who experience instability in their mental health are maybe particularly receptive to these kinds of messages, but I wouldn’t focus on mental health issues because it’s a broader phenomenon. 

Conceivably, people with mental health issues are more receptive or more likely to turn these sentiments into action, but I wouldn’t be an expert on that. So, I’d be very cautious speculating about that.

You’re mentioned a lot of this is driven by white men. But in this case, we have two suspects who aren’t white. Is there a takeaway from this? 

I think in general, the resentments are attached to white Americans, but it’s conceivable that they spill over to immigrant groups. There have always been jealousies and conflicts for scarce resources among recent immigrant groups. That’s a story that’s as old as immigration to this country, and it’s conceivable that that also plays its role. 

It would be interesting to have data on patterns of offenders. To look at all the hate crimes against mosques and synagogues, against Asian Americans and look at the ethnic and racial distribution of people engaged in those attacks. I don’t have those data at hand. It will be interesting to see.

We have multiple suspects in four incidents in four weeks that don’t appear to be all directly related to each other. Do attacks like these feed off each other?

That’s an old phenomenon: a copycat attack. When one attack happens, other people model their own behavior off of that. That wouldn’t be new. Whenever you have something like a school shooting, the risks that there will be more school shootings in other places in the country are always increased. 

So, yes, the copycat effect definitely has been observed in many forms of violence, including hate-inspired violence, and that might play a role in this case, too.

What can be done to stop attacks like these from happening? 

People in positions of political power can speak against this type of behavior, but unfortunately in our polarized landscape, there are very few who speak for at least 70 or 80 percent of the public. 

Persons of authority, who might be politicians, but they may also be from the cultural world. They may be pop stars, they may be sports athletes, who speak up against this kind of behavior. 

Media is a different story. How to reform the landscape of American media so it isn’t as polarized and isn’t affiliated with specific ideological currents. I think that would be a very major challenge. How to change social media. There are efforts with Twitter and Facebook to control false information and to control hate messages, but the effectiveness of those efforts are quite limited. 

When it comes to structural reasons—the changeover of the American economy from a production economy to service and IT economy—I cannot quite see how that could be changed except for retraining people so they will more easily fit into this new economic world. But those are long term projects that cannot be realized within a few weeks or months or even just a few years.

Do you have thoughts as to how the news media can cover events like these?

Well, I think it’s an old discussion that the media focuses on the perpetrator, and thereby gives the perpetrator the kind of visibility that they might be seeking. What is important for the media to do, it seems to me, is to show the effect that this sort of behavior has on the victims. Those who endure, those who suffer the consequences. 

Empathy with the victims, I think, would be an important part of media coverage that ought to be emphasized. Not so much paying attention to this or that individual perpetrator.

What can the community do to recover from fear and trauma going through these events?

The community, typically when they’ve experienced trauma, can cope by engaging in rituals. These may be civic rituals or religious rituals that provide them with a sense of solidarity and mutual support. That will be one way, which of course can have detrimental effects, too, because it might isolate a group, but it should be combined with pulling in members of other groups. 

So, for example, I know initiatives the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas often have events together with other other minority groups that experience discrimination and hate. So, for a group to pull together through gatherings and rituals, that’s important, but also pulling in others who support them in to articulate their support. These may be members of other minorities who experienced discrimination but also members of mainstream society who hate hate, who are as upset about these events as the affected groups. 

I think this sense of experience, this sense of solidarity, would be really crucial for the affected groups. 

How should people who are not directly affected by these attacks support those who are? 

They should reach out to the leaders of the Muslim community. You talked earlier about a group of Muslims visiting with the governor. That’s important. It’s important that the governor himself reaches out. It’s important that legislators reach out. It’s important that other community leaders, pastors, rabbis, reach out to the Somali community and assure them of their support, that they are not not isolated, not alone with this kind of threat that they live under. 

Media, of course, can play their part too. Media can try to understand what the affected groups experience and relay this to a broader public. I think solidarity is crucial within the affected group, so people don’t feel isolated, but also solidarity by other minorities and by mainstream society. 

Vandalism at Minnesota mosques

There have been six incidents targeting Minnesota mosques in 2023, according to the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN).

Four cases have been widely publicized:

  • The Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center in St. Paul was set on fire on May 17. Said Murekezi was charged in the case, and allegedly told investigators he set the fire to protest homelessness. The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office said there is no evidence the alleged crime was motivated by bias.
  • A masked suspect threw a chunk of concrete at Masjid As Sunnah in St. Paul on May 12. No arrests have been made.
  • Jackie Rahm Little of Plymouth allegedly set a fire in the bathroom at Masjid Omar Islamic Center, which is located in 24 Somali Mall, in Minneapolis on April 23.
  • Jackie Rahm Little of Plymouth allegedly set a fire in the third floor hallway of Mercy Islamic Center, which houses Masjid Al Rahma, in Minneapolis on April 24. Little was indicted with one count of arson and one count of damage to religious property for the Minneapolis fires. He remains in custody at the Sherburne County jail.

Jaylani, executive director of CAIR-MN, said the other two incidents include:

  • A man used a large object to smash several windows and the main door of Ummatul Islam Mosque in Minneapolis on April 10. Damages were estimated at more than $10,000.
  • In January, Jackie Rahm Little spray painted a door at the 24 Somali Mall, where Masjid Omar Islamic Center is located.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...