Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O'Hara, third from left, speaks at a community forum about mosque safety at Masjid Ar-Rahma on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. Credit: Nicole Neri | MPR News

From a lack of funding to cultural biases, local mosques face several challenges in protecting their premises and worshippers, Minnesota Muslim leaders said at a community forum Tuesday.

Community members spoke out at an event at the Mercy Islamic Center co-hosted by Sahan Journal and MPR News in response to attacks on four Twin Cities mosques between April and May. The event was held in the same building where Jackie Rahm Little allegedly lit a fire on the third floor that houses Masjid Al Rahma, causing an estimated $50,000 in damages.

Panelist Imam Yusuf Abdulle, an executive director of the Islamic Association of North America, said the solution to protecting houses of worship lies in funding. Yusuf said most mosques can’t afford safety training like active shooter training, much less added security and equipment like security cameras. 

“This is not a community that is wealthy or rich; it’s a poor community that is struggling in life in general,” Yusuf said.

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The panelists, which included imams, police officials, and a law professor, discussed the impact of hate crimes, restorative justice, and mosque security, among other topics. Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger also announced that his office will participate in a national campaign called United Against Hate, which aims to provide support, partnership, and resources to communities of all kinds affected by hate and Islamophobia.

“Right now, given what’s happening and given the fear and the concern in the community, we want to make sure that we’re reaching out to the Muslim community first,” Luger said.

The United Against Hate program was announced in September 2022. It brings community groups and federal, state, and local law enforcement together in forums to increase understanding. It also hopes to increase the reporting of hate crimes and to strengthen relationships between law enforcement and community groups to fight hate, according to the U.S. Department of Justice website.

St. Paul Police Deputy Chief of Operations Joshua Lego also revealed that a suspect has been identified in the vandalism at Masjid As Sunnah. The suspect threw a large chunk of concrete at the St. Paul mosque’s glass door several times on May 12, shattering it. Lego said Tuesday night that police are working to find the suspect.

Luger reaffirmed his commitment to finding justice for the mostly East African communities affected by the four recent mosque attacks. While prosecutors allege that one suspect in two cases was motivated by hate, the motive in a third case remains unknown, and a fourth case has been deemed unrelated to bias.

Little was indicted on a federal hate crime for lighting fires at Masjid Al Rahma* and Masjid Omar Islamic Center, which is located in 24 Somali Mall, in April. Said Murekezi was charged for starting a fire inside the Oromo American Tawhid Islamic Center on May 17, allegedly to protest homelessness. No charges have been filed in the vandalism at Masjid As Sunnah.

“I have had my own brushes with hate, even if they are minor compared with an arson or a bombing of a mosque,” Luger said after noting that he is Jewish and that synagogues have also been targeted for violence.

Moderators asked Luger  how he planned to earn community trust while simultaneously prosecuting 60 mostly East African defendants in the Feeding Our Future food-aid fraud case, and in light of his previous work leading a federal counterterrorism program focused on Minnesota’s Somali community.

Community members listen to local imams, police officials, and a law professor a community forum about mosque safety at Masjid Ar-Rahma on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. Credit: Nicole Neri | MPR News

He said being present at community events such as Tuesday’s forum and maintaining an open line of communication with local imams are his key strategies, along with doing his job “quickly.”

“I hope we build trust, because it’s something—as I said in my remarks—is deeply personal to me that we protect all communities, and in particular right now this community,” Luger said.

A major talking point among panel members, which included a representative from the Minnesota chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN), was how to treat suspects who have mixed intentions, including those diagnosed with mental health issues.

Minneapolis Police Chief, Brian O’Hara and Deputy Chief Lego from St. Paul police said every incident would be investigated similarly without assumption of a suspect’s motive.

“What we saw in Minneapolis in the last few months was just an increasing escalation of these really dangerous behaviors,” O’Hara said. ”If a person needs help, that’s fine. They can get the help in federal prison.”

Liliana Zaragoza, a professor and the director of the Racial Justice Law Clinic at the University of Minnesota, said arrests won’t completely stop future attacks. The solutions lie in how society combats white supremacy, and how future attacks can be prevented by providing services that address mental health and other issues. 

“I think it does matter because what if, somehow, that mental illness exacerbates the ideas about hate,” Zaragoza said.

Yusuf, the local imam, echoed Zaragoza’s sentiments. The long term solution, he said, is to deal with the root of the problem. He said the country was due for a “cultural change” regarding its views on Muslims.

Panelist Mohamed Ibrahim, deputy director of the CAIR-MN, said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter made a commitment to purchasing cameras for houses of worship in his city, and that he’d like to see Governor Tim Walz and state legislators step up their commitment.

“We still have a huge gap in terms of how do we financially, at least, equip these mosques with just the basic fundamentals of having a camera that isn’t, you know, only activating based on motion,” Mohamed said.

*CORRECTION: The story has been updated to reflect the mosque Jackie Rahm Little allegedly set on fire.

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 for starting a fire inside the center to allegedly protest homelessness.
  • A masked suspect threw a chunk of concrete at Masjid As Sunnah in St. Paul on May 12. A suspect has been identified but 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.

Alfonzo Galvan is a reporter for Sahan Journal, covering work, labor, small business, and entrepreneurship. Before joining Sahan Journal, he covered breaking news and immigrant communities in South Dakota,...