Imams denounce al-Shabab in Friday prayer services

Imam Hassan Mohamud
Imam Hassan Mohamud speaks about the recent Nairobi terrorist attacks during his English-language service Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 at the Minnesota Da'Wah Institute.
MPR Photo/Amanda Snyder

At the first Friday prayer services following the deadly siege of a Kenyan shopping mall, Muslim leaders in the Twin Cities used their pulpits to denounce the Somali terror group behind the attacks.

"Today what we see, my dear brothers and sisters -- from some groups who claim they are Muslims -- we see their behaviors are the opposite of Islam," said Imam Hassan Mohamud of the Minnesota Da'Wah Institute. "And al-Shabab is one of them."

There has been no official confirmation connecting the attackers to Minnesota, where U.S. authorities say al-Shabab has recruited about two dozen fighters to the Horn of Africa.

But even without that direct link, imams in the Twin Cities say they have a responsibility to speak up.

Young Somali-Americans try to repair community's image
Background: Minnesota pipeline to al-Shabab
Somalis in Minnesota

Friday is a significant day for Muslims, many of whom make a point to gather under the same roof to hear a sermon from their mosque leaders.

Shoeless men and their sons filtered into the front doors of the Minnesota Da'Wah Institute, a scrappy storefront mosque on a St. Paul street crammed with mechanic shops, Asian restaurants and nail salons.

Mamdouh praying at Minnesota Da'Wah Institute
Mamdouh and others finish the service with at prayer on Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 at the Minnesota Da'Wah Institute. In the wake of the Nairobi terrorist attacks, Minnesota Da'Wah Institute's imam, Hassan Mohamud, condemned the violence and its association with their religion during the service.
MPR Photo/Amanda Snyder

A young man in a tunic facing the northeast corner of the room called everyone to prayer.

Mohamud, a man with glasses and a scraggly white beard, recently returned from a conference in Somalia's capital. He was one of 160 Islamic scholars from around the globe who were invited by the Somali government. Their mission? To tackle that country's Enemy No. 1 -- al-Shabab.

Mohamud said the conference of imams in Mogadishu was the first of its kind. The scholars even issued an Islamic fatwa forbidding anyone to join, sympathize, or support al-Shabab. The fatwa came less than two weeks before gunmen in Nairobi killed at least 60 people at the Westgate shopping mall.

Traditionally, the main target of al-Shabab has been Somalis themselves -- so much so that Mohamud has renamed the terror group: "Project to Kill Somalis."

Mohamud tells the worshippers they have a duty to show their neighbors in this country that the "real Islam" is peace. Another religious obligation, he said, is to see that young Somali-Americans understand that, too.

"Go back to our families, our young people, and make sure the wrong ideologies of extremism [are] not spread out among our kids, among our masjids, among our communities," he said.

"Terroristic groups like al-Shabaab and al Qaeda are the enemy of Somali people, Islam and the rest of [humanity]."

Mohamud's sermon echoes the strong condemnations earlier this week by several Twin Cities imams who spoke at the Abubakar As-Saddique, the largest Somali mosque in the state, where some al-Shabab recruits secretly met.

The fatwa from Mogadishu also said Somalis have a religious duty to hand over al-Shabab members to the authorities. Mohamud said that order should be extended to the Twin Cities if Somalis detect any evidence of recruitment.

In Minneapolis, Abdul Karim Ali, an imam at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhoods, also changed his Friday prayer service in response to the Nairobi shootings.

Though Ali has lectured against Islamic extremists for years, he is now calling on other local Islamic leaders educate people about the "evil ideology" of groups like al-Shabaab.

"Terroristic groups like al-Shabaab and al Qaeda are the enemy of Somali people, Islam and the rest of [humanity]," he said.

Ali said he's worried more young Somali men in Minneapolis could be recruited by al-Shabaab.

Girl peeks out during prayer
A girl peeks out during the end prayer on Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 at the Minnesota Da'Wah Institute. In the wake of the Nairobi terrorist attacks, Imam Hassan Mohamud spoke about the violence and condemned association with the attacks.
MPR Photo/Amanda Snyder

That's why some community leaders are increasing their efforts to educate people that extremists don't represent Islam, he said.

The fact that the imams are speaking so strongly against the terror group signals a major shift.

Six years ago, after the first wave of young men left Minnesota to fight in their homeland, Mohamud was skeptical about the disappearances.

At the time, Somalis around the world were divided over who al-Shabab was. So were the imams, Mohamud said.

Some Somalis perceived al-Shabab as a group of freedom fighters defending the country from Ethiopian troops who invaded the country.

"So that's why it took time to reveal who are these people, and what is their agenda," Mohamud said. "But now, we see no divisions among the scholars, no division among the Somalis. This group is dangerous to Islam, to Somalis, and to the world."

As worshippers kneel and pray on the jade-colored carpet, 30-year-old Abdi Yusuf keeps an eye on his boys, ages 3 and 4.

"The most important thing for me is my kids," he said. "I want them to have the best life they can have."

Yusuf is still surprised al-Shabab found a fertile recruiting ground in his community here in Minnesota. He thinks any young person could be a target, and said it's important for his boys, Ayub and Salman, to absorb the message of today's sermon.

"The imam, we trust him," Yusuf said. "He's teaching the kids that al-Shabab, what they're doing is wrong. And I wanted them to hear that."

Imam Mohamud, however, said he's just getting started. For a holy man -- whose words are his only arsenal -- he's ready to go head to head with al-Shabab.

"This," he said, "is war."

Cody Nelson contributed to this report.

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