Ahmed Jemale stood tall on his way to Masjid Omar Islamic Center Thursday morning, dressed in a dark-colored T-shirt emblazoned with a bald eagle in flight gripping a U.S. flag in its talons.
“Our eyes are open, our minds are open—we are watching them,” Ahmed said of people who may want to vandalize mosques. “And whenever we find [them], we’ll call 911 right away.”
A spate of vandalism against four mosques in Minneapolis and St. Paul in four weeks has Muslim community members feeling a mix of emotions—frustration, fear, sadness, and for some, defiance. Many community members have mobilized to make their voices heard and to seek out solutions as the motives for the attacks remain unknown.
A few dozen community members met with Governor Tim Walz’s office Thursday afternoon to seek funding to improve security at all houses of worship. Others aired their concerns to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Wednesday evening hours after a mosque was set ablaze in St. Paul.
One message rang clear: It’s time to set aside words of support and take action.
“This goes to every Minnesotan—every color, every religion. It don’t matter what gender. My question to you is that, ‘How many more mosques do you want to hear about on the news? How many more Masjids destroyed, vandalized, or burned do you want to see on the news?’” asked Abdulmajid Mohamed, director of Masjid As Sunnah. “If it’s zero, then now’s the time to reach out to your elected official and say, ‘This is enough.’
“There needs to be security provided to every—I’m not saying only mosques—every religion place.”
Masjid As Sunnah in St. Paul was vandalized on May 12 when a suspect threw a large chunk of concrete at its glass door several minutes after the last congregants had left morning prayers.
Masjid Omar Islamic Center, where Ahmed was headed, has also been victimized. Federal prosecutors allege that Jackie Rahm Little set a fire in the mosque’s bathroom on April 23 that was quickly extinguished, and then set a fire on April 24 that caused extensive damage at Masjid Al Rahma.
No one was injured in the recent cases of vandalism; arrests were made in three of the four incidents.
Congregants at Masjid Omar Islamic Center have been on high alert since the fire, Ahmed said, adding that he trusts the mall’s security to keep him safe and trusts law enforcement to find vandals who target mosques. Little was indicted on a federal hate crime charge and is in custody.
Ahmed wanted the public to know that the people worshiping at mosques are Americans, too.
“All people are welcome here. We are Americans, we are Somali Americans,” he said. “We love America.”
But not everyone was as optimistic. Forty-eight-year-old Luz Caicedo said she’s scared to step into a mosque, and that her fears aren’t new.
“It’s an ongoing issue,” said Caicedo, who was headed to 24 Somali Mall but planned to avoid the mosque. “I don’t go into the mosque that much. I just pray at home. I go home and I pray because I don’t feel safe.”
Caicedo, a South American Muslim, said she has felt unsafe in the past and has requested more security at mosques after women’s purses were stolen. With the recent vandalism, she plans to stay at home indefinitely.
“I cry because all we doing is worshiping Allah, and if they realized that they would know that at the end of the day, we’re gonna feel sad about it—that you’re burning, you’re burning a building that we worship God in, and it’s not right,” Caicedo said.
A plea for funding
In an effort to address concerns like Caicedo’s, several local Muslim leaders met in private with Walz’s chief of staff Thursday afternoon. They asked the state to allocate $7.5 million towards security improvements at 150 “houses of worship” before the legislative session ends on Monday, May 22.
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Minnesota), described the meeting as an “emergency rally.”
The money, which would be available to all religions, would be used for security doors, lighting, and cameras, he said.
“We don’t want people to say ‘We care about us,’ and have $17 billion be spent this year without actually protecting mosques and other places of worship,” Jaylani said.
Surveillance cameras at the Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center in St. Paul, which was set on fire Wednesday morning, were not working, Jaylani said. It’s too early to determine the cost of damages to the mosque, he said, adding that it will likely be “hundreds of thousands” of dollars.
“I think the broader community has to start taking these things seriously. We have faced selective and performative–now it seems to be performative—allyship,” Jaylani said. “Now we have more attacks—more things have happened to us than the entire four years of President Trump, yet we have lost any real solidarity and support at all.”
Jaylani knows firsthand the dangers facing Minnesota’s mosques. He said he was at Masjid Al Rahma in south Minneapolis to talk with an imam when a fire broke out on April 24. He helped others escape the fire, which caused extensive damage on the third floor. About 100 people were present at the time, including approximately 50 children in the basement daycare.
“This stuff is real,” he said. “Even some of us who are working in this space, to actually be at a mosque where it’s being burned down while you’re in there brings it home even further.”
Imam Asad Zaman of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota was among the community members at the Thursday meeting.
“The governor’s office promised to look into the pools of money that have already been passed to see if some of them can be redirected towards these purposes,” Asad said.
Abdulrahim Doyo, an imam at the Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center, also attended. He described the meeting as “positive” and hoped there would be more in the future.
Walz’s office did not return messages seeking comment.
Trouble accessing grants
Leaders from Minnesota’s Somali Muslim community also called for increased security at mosques during a meeting Wednesday with Minnesota’s Public Safety Commissioner, Bob Jacobson.
State and local officials have loudly condemned the streak of suspected arson and vandalism that has hit Twin Cities mosques this year. But many in the Muslim community said the time for thoughts and prayers is over.
“We don’t want this to be lip service. We need an outcome,” said Mire Mohamed.
Mire has lived in south Minneapolis next to the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center since 2005. He attended Wednesday’s meeting at the Aim Academy of Science and Technology, a charter school connected to the mosque. Mire and others said they want to feel safe going to mosques that serve not just as a house of worship, but as community centers and gathering places.
The meeting was organized as a listening session between members of Minnesota’s Somali community and state leaders. Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Willie Jet also attended to hear about educational needs from school leaders and youth advocates.
But with recent attacks on most attendees’ minds, safety was the main focus.
“I am so sorry for what your community is going through with these mosque attacks,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson said the recent mosque attacks are being investigated by state and federal law enforcement. Community members said they want state and local law enforcement to be proactive about security. (St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said Wednesday that police would increase their patrols around mosques.)
“I don’t think the state understands the gravity of the issue,” said Yusuf Abdulle, executive director of the Islamic Association of North America.
Yusuf is tired of condemning attacks. Although he appreciates politicians and law enforcement leaders joining in the condemnation, Yusuf believes it’s important to increase security before someone gets hurt or killed.
“We don’t want it to get to that level,” Yusuf said.
Jacobson encouraged mosque leaders to apply for federal and state grants that help pay for security costs at places of worship. He said the state will support local law enforcement, and that mosques should work with police in their cities to boost security.
But Abdullahi Farah, executive director of Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, said his mosque has applied for the federal grants the last two years, and never received any money or even a response.
He recalled attending a Department of Homeland Security meeting on the grants last year, where he was told that only “sophisticated” congregations received the funding. Abubakar As-Saddique is the largest mosque in the state, he said, and even they don’t have a staff grant writer.
“If we’re not getting this, who is?” Abdullahi said.
‘Don’t be afraid’
Abdulmajid Mohamed, director of Masjid As Sunnah in St. Paul, said congregants have offered to volunteer as security for the mosque.
As a nonprofit, he said, the mosque’s security cameras and lights are provided by the community. Many houses of worship across religious affiliations don’t have the funds to hire their own security, he added
“Religion is much more than a business place where you can attack and people will say, ‘I’m not coming back to this business because there’s a lot of attacks going on,’” Abdulmajid said. “Religion is much more than that. It’s much deeper than that. So, people will no matter what, will show up, and show their prayer, will gather, and worship the God that they worship.”
Abdulmajid doesn’t feel unsafe at mosques or elsewhere in the community, yet he worries that the mosque attacks will spread to other religious places.
In Minneapolis where Ahmed Jemale strode confidently into Masjid Omar Islamic Center Thursday to pray and read the Quran, a 37-year-old guard is on the frontlines of security.
Baka Jama was in his first week on the job when he saw Jackie Rahm Little fleeing after allegedly lighting a fire in a second-floor bathroom next to the mosque.
“Man, he sure could run,” Baka said Thursday while looking at the staircase Little used to escape. “He actually jumped. Nobody was trying to stop him, because they was afraid he might have had a gun or knife.”
Baka watched over a handful of people reading the Quran at Masjid Omar Islamic Center Thursday morning.
Under Islamic traditions, no one is turned away from a mosque, but Baka said people are becoming more vigilant of those they don’t recognize. However, he said, instead of a drop in visitors to the mosque, he’s seen an increase.
“Allah is willing to protect us. So, just don’t be panicking. Don’t be afraid,” Baka said. “Let’s come to pray.”
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.
Four cases have been widely publicized:
- The Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center in St. Paul was set on fire on May 17. St. Paul police arrested a 42-year-old man that evening on suspicion of arson. Charges have not been filed as of Friday morning.
- 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 the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, 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.