On the night of January 27, three men entered Mohammad Ismail’s Blaine Dairy store as he was closing shop and threw flaming glass bottles at the walls, destroying everything in the store. Ismail escaped through the smoke-filled store with minor cuts and burns. A strong expletive directed at the word “Arab” was founded spray painted on the side door that same night. The FBI is investigating the possibility of a hate crime.
Exactly two months later, on March 27, roughly 75 community leaders and concerned citizens gathered at Anoka Technical School to talk about what they were going to do about hate crime in their community. The crowd looked small in the auditorium, but the conversation was constructive, with many speakers stressing the need to forgive those who cause harm, educate the public, and get to know one’s neighbors. As an example of the meeting’s overall goals of unity, the event was cosponsored by the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Lake Harriet United Methodist Church, the Anoka Technical Student College Senate, and the NAACP.
“This city won’t tolerate hate crimes,” Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan stated, declaring that he had only seen two hate crimes in Blaine during his 22 years as an elected official, and those were both solved within a week.
Mohammad Ismail’s case has been open for two months. Much of the early investigation focused on Ismail himself, including searching his home and requiring him to take a polygraph test, which he passed. The store was his family’s only source of income, and Mohammad Ismail’s insurance will not accept a claim until a final police report has been filed. Lt. Chris Olson, who was present at the meeting, stated that the police department was committed to following all leads and would not make a final report until they had considered all the options.
It seems, stated Nathaniel Khalik of the St. Paul branch of the NAACP, that investigations move slower when African-Americans or Muslims are involved. Ismail was in the store when the attackers entered, and that makes the case attempted murder. The NAACP is adding $500 to information that leads to the arrest of the attackers. The total reward now stands at $4000. Anyone with information is asked to call the Blaine Police Department at (763) 785-6168.
Muslim citizens who spoke of peace and education at the event were familiar with Muslim-focused crimes throughout the metro area.
Zafar Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Resource Group, told the audience that his wife was nearly run off the road on the anniversary of 9/11 by a person shouting racial epithets. She was driving their four children home from school.
The garage of the chairwoman of CAIR was vandalized by a paintball gun while they were out doing errands on March 25, two days before the town meeting. It was the second time in several months that this had happened, said her husband, who spoke of their emphasis on getting to know their neighbors.
Zafar Siddiqui, whose car was scraped but whose family was unhurt, stressed that these hateful actions are based on misunderstandings. Both Muslim and non-Muslim attendees suggested that Muslims volunteer in schools, meet their neighbors, and take part in neighborhood crime-watch groups. The goal, speakers agreed, was to combat media-induced fear with personal relationships.
One speaker, a white man who identified himself as Christian, said he drives daily past the Blaine Dairy but had not known until recently that the fire had been due to arson. He apologized to the crowd that someone who might have looked like him could have committed such a hateful crime.
Admitting that he knew little about Islam, he told the crowd he always avoided eye contact with Muslim women so as not to offend them. A young African-American woman wearing a scarf politely explained that Muslim men and women were allowed to talk but not to mingle or touch. Event mediator Chris Schumacher of CAIR acknowledged the courage it takes to admit when you don’t know something.
A member of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in southwest Minneapolis presented a check to help Mohammad Ismail’s family. The Lake Harriet United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, which helped sponsor the event, will also be taking an offering for the family. Ismail has three young children ranging from two to seven. Ismail’s extended family and friends have been helping them survive.
For information about the Islamic Resource Group or to schedule an informational presentation about Islam, visit www.irgmn.org or call (612) 676-0165.
Emily K. Bright is a creative writing MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota and works as the Scribe for Human Rights, writing articles on human rights themes. She was involved in putting on Thursday night’s meeting.