A Minneapolis mosque, associated by law enforcement officials with a handful of missing Somali young men, answered its critics with an open house this week. Mosque representatives want to dispel any concerns by showing the revered religious center as an open environment that promotes messages of peace. Still, mosque officials are having to answer claims by high level officials that the mosque plays a role in recruiting the youth, who may have returned to Somalia to fight in various militarized factions vying for control of the country.
If it weren’t for the flowing hijab scarves, the shoeless television reporters and the piles of Somali flat bread sabiyaat , the event at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center would resemble and old fashioned ice cream social at a country Baptist church. Smiling mosque representatives greeted visitors at the door and guided them to mounds of food catered by a local restaurant. But it didn’t take long to get to the main reason for the gathering, to throw open the doors and show those usually outside the center’s walls the building is harmless and has nothing to hide.
Abdulahi Farah, Abubakar’s volunteer youth coordinator who coaches basketball and organizes other activities to give Somali youth a positive outlet for their spare time. He says the open house is meant to bridge a chasm of misunderstanding with the greater community.
“We want to reach out to the common Americans, the everyday Americans who are working hard, who are providing for their families,” Farah said. We share the same things with you. We pay taxes. We’re part of the community as much as any American is.”
Farah’s comments come after a cloud of controversy descended on the mosque when news accounts surfaced last fall linked the Islamic center to a handful of Somali immigrants from Minnesota who returned to fight in their home country. Farah says the mosque’s leaders are as concerned as anyone else if people with radical or violent intentions are in their midst.
“We have a challenge to the people who singled out the mosque to say OK you have something, bring it out, we want to know as well,” he said. We’re opening our doors to our neighbors, to everyone who has a question. We simply don’t teach those teachings here.”
Just when the mosque’s supporters think the controversy has died down, some new allegation surfaces to bring unwelcome scrutiny to this pillar of Minneapolis Somali life. This week FBI Director Robert Mueller asserted that the agency is convinced former Minneapolis resident Shirwa Ahmed was—in Mueller’s terms—“radicalized” in Minnesota before killing himself and many others in an explosion in a northern Somali town. The mosque’s leaders and a majority of the Minneapolis Somali population as a whole view such accusations as a backhanded attack on the mosque and those who attend there. Farah said Mueller and others should not jump to any conclusions about the young men who returned to Somalia and their connection to the mosque.
“If it was a crime for those individuals to come here, then every Somali person in this community is guilty as well because they come here and they make their prayers here,” Farah said.
His perspective is echoed by Jessica Zikri, a Muslim woman born and raised in Mankato, now a spokeswoman for the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
“When you hear comments like ‘radicalized’ you get this picture of a basement meeting place where there’s dark cell, closed doors, men scheming,” Zikri said. “When you come into the mosque and you see this is really an open environment. People are coming here to pray five times a day, once you meet people, talk to them, have food with them you start to see they’re just like everybody else.”
Mueller’s comments touched off a wave of verbal attacks on the mosque. The center’s representatives turned over phone message recordings to police in which anonymous callers accused mosque worshipers of being terrorists or inaccurately implying they are a drain on tax resources.
“I think you should pack up and all go home” one caller slurred into the phone. “We shouldn’t be supporting you people. You come over here and live off of us. You’re not Americans. Just go home. Please. You don’t belong here. You didn’t grow up here.”
The Abubakar’s open house appears to have made a significant amount of progress toward heading off such bigotry, at least for those who bothered to show up. Aisha Gomez who lives near the Phillips Neighborhood mosque, says she came to offer support and see for herself what goes on here.
“Once a community is the object of an investigation by the FBI–and I’d heard they’d been receiving threatening phone calls and stuff–I think it’s important for the neighbors to show up and that we’re, like, okay,” Gomez said.
Gomez also wanted to know if the mosque’s leaders were able to focus on rooting out any problems that they themselves identify as a departure from their teachings.
“I was kind of interested if there was anything else in particular being done in this community to address the problem, or if they were so busy defending themselves against these attacks they haven’t had time to address it, which to me would be tragic.”
Representatives of the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center organized the open house weeks before Mueller’s comments. If there’s a positive side to the controversy, they say it generated discussion and made for the most well-attended and diverse open house ever.