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Mpls. mosque assault points to fringe element, some say

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Hassan Jama
Hassan Jama, center, director of the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis, looks over a sign-up sheet of mosque volunteers on Wednesday, July 13, 2011. Jama was punched in the face earlier this month when an irate worshipper reacted to a visiting scholar's remarks that disparaged the extremist group al-Shabab.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

When a visiting Islamic scholar urged Somali-American worshippers at Minnesota's largest mosque to ignore the politics and violence of their war-torn homeland, not everyone wanted to hear it.

One member of the audience reacted so angrily that he punched a mosque official and another man in the face, say people who attended the service.

Some community members say the scuffle points to a radical fringe element that has become more vocal ever since mosque leaders stepped up their condemnation of extremist views.

A DEEPLY TROUBLING INCIDENT  

The July 4 assault at the mosque deeply troubles some Somali-Americans, largely because it was unprecedented, and unholy.

"In our community, there's a lot of taboos. This is the biggest taboo you can even imagine," said Hindia Ali, a community activist in Minneapolis. "I can't even imagine what prompted that person to do that inside the house of God."

The mosque was full of respected elders, men, women and young people, said Hassan Jama, director of the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis. It was his head that became a punching bag.

"Everybody was shocked," he said. "Everybody."

According to a police report, Jama took several blows to the face, resulting in a cut to his lower lip. About the time one man pummeled him, another man turned off the lights, possibly to create even more havoc.

The man Jama accused of hitting him then filed a police report that claimed he was the victim. Minneapolis police say they do not expect to make any arrests given that the blows to Jama amount only to fifth-degree assault and no officers witnessed the scuffle.

MOSQUE INCREASING YOUTH OUTREACH

Jama, who has been in his new role for less than a year, wasn't running the mosque when young Twin Cities men who frequently gathered there began to slip away to Somalia. Federal authorities say they went to fight with religious extremists. This week, a Minneapolis man pleaded guilty to helping send some of the men to fight Ethiopian soldiers that had occupied their homeland.

Abdiwali Warsame
Abdiwali Warsame, 28, of Minneapolis created a website that is critical of local religious and Somali community leaders. Warsame, who founded a group called the Islamic Awakening Council, says he and his allies oppose all foreign troops in Somalia, including African Union peacekeepers.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Over the past several months, the center has increased its efforts to put its youth on the right path, Jama said. Speakers flood the mosque with positive and peaceful messages.

The visit from the scholar Mohamed Idris Ahmed was part of that broader strategy.

A local website, Somali Midnimo, posted an audio clipof the question-and-answer session recorded by an audience member.

Ahmed urged the worshippers to focus on their lives here, and not be distracted by the destruction and fighting back in Somalia.

"There is something more pressing for me: I am in Minnesota, not in Mogadishu," he told them. "My main concern is where to find a place to pray, how I should preserve my religion, how to save my children from drugs, how I should be a Muslim, how I should learn my religion, and how I should live."

Ahmed also said both the Somali government and the extremist group al-Shabab were responsible for the ongoing violence in the country.

The disruption occurred after Ahmed told the crowd that the Somali community in Minnesota rejects al-Shabab. Then he asked rhetorically: "Who destroyed Mogadishu?"

A young man responded with the word, "gaalo," which means "nonbelievers." Some Somalis also use the term to describe Christians or foreign influences. But Ahmed, the scholar, wouldn't accept that outsiders were to blame.

"We are against foreign troops still, and we will never change our mind until they get out of our country."

"Tell me, who destroyed it?" Ahmed repeated before answering. "Somalis destroyed Mogadishu."

A man in the audience then demanded to ask the Ahmed a question.

Jama, the mosque director, said he asked the young man to calm down and put the question in writing. That's when the man began to punch him.

No matter what about the speech provoked the fight, some jihadi forums around the world picked up on the incident and praised the attack, according to the SITE Monitoring Service, which tracks and analyzes terror threats.

The FBI conducted some interviews following the incident, but said it did not warrant further questioning. Bureau officials say the mosque's leaders have been involved in ongoing conversations between law enforcement and community members.

Jama said leaders at Abubakar mosque are determined to distance themselves from what they believe to be radical views.

"Anyone who doesn't believe what we believe and what we are practicing here in this masjid, they are not welcome," he said.

FRIEND OF ATTACKER SPEAKS

The man who Jama said attacked him did not return a phone call requesting comment for this story. 

But the man's friend, Abdiwali Warsame, said the man felt he needed to challenge mosque leaders for turning their backs on a position they once held against foreign occupiers. Warsame, who runs the controversial Somali Midnimo website, said even though Ethiopian soldiers have since left Somalia, his group of friends still oppose the African Union troops occupying his homeland.

"We are against foreign troops still, and we will never change our mind until they get out of our country," he said.

Warsame is no stranger to the mosque, which banned him from the premises earlier this year. Officials said his writings were inflammatory and misleading. Some find his articles to be sympathetic with extreme ideology. 

Warsame said his critics label him as extremist just because he challenges mosque leaders. He notes that his writings are protected by the First Amendment. His site, however, has been shut down since Friday, due to a technical error on his server.

While some Somali-Americans in Minnesota say they're more attuned to controversial views held by some members of their community, they don't know what to do about it.

Nimco Ahmed, who serves on an advisory group to the Department of Homeland Security, said she doesn't feel comfortable calling the FBI to report someone if she is not sure the person is dangerous. She is not related to the July 4 speaker.

"If we have people inside of our community who are radicalized, what do we need to do to identify them? What identifies a radical individual? I think all of that is not really clear," she said.

Next week, U.S. Rep. Peter King, of New York, plans to hold a another hearing about Muslim American radicalization. He will focus on al-Shabab recruitment in the Twin Cities.