A Bloomington mosque has for months been the focus of online videos produced by a right-wing social media website.
But in recent weeks, worshippers and mosque officials say scrutiny of the Dar Al Farooq Youth and Family Center has taken an even more sinister turn as opponents of the mosque have shown up to photograph or record video of young children on a nearby playground.
Abdulahi Farah, the mosque’s program director, said the disturbances have reached a tipping point.
“It was a new low. You’re harassing adults, we get it, whatever. An adult can overcome that and they can put that into perspective,” he said. “But when you're harassing kids who have been looking forward to recess the whole morning, what is that? How insensitive are you?”
Dar Al Farooq is at the center of a video series called “The Mosque Diaries” by a Minnesota-based website, Third Rail Talk, which dubs itself as a source of news that “big media” won’t cover. It’s not clear whether any photos or video of the kids on the playground will be published on that site, which has already produced three episodes featuring the Bloomington mosque.
Third Rail Talk has been banned from Twitter and Facebook, but viewers are still able to see its content on YouTube and other platforms like BitChute and Gab, where the videos attract thousands of views.
Its latest target, Dar Al Farooq, is the same Twin Cities mosque that was bombed in the summer of 2017. One of the Illinois men who pleaded guilty to the bombing said they had hoped to scare Muslims out of the country.
Tensions between neighbors and the center go back years during discussions about zoning, parking and use permits. The building was originally a public elementary school. Private Christian schools also used the space for church gatherings.
Since Dar Al Farooq occupied the building space in 2011, critics have been voicing complaints about increased traffic, noise and the use of an adjacent city-owned park. They say the city has favored Dar Al Farooq over other establishments. But Bloomington city officials say traffic is no different than what would be seen outside of a church on Sundays. They also say whenever complaints arise, they work with property owners to resolve them.
Although just a small group of people in Bloomington have voiced opposition against Dar Al Farooq, videos targeting the mosque have reached people all over the world.
Harassment — or protected First Amendment activity?
Mosquegoers say they began noticing representatives from Third Rail Talk show up outside of Dar Al Farooq back in December. Some called the police to file harassment complaints, but a Third Rail Talk attorney says the First Amendment protects their right to film on public property.
The videos circulate conspiracy theories suggesting Muslims are here to impose Islamic law on the United States government. They don't go into detail about how that would happen. Instead, they focus on zoning and public safety issues.
The clips also highlight concerns about terror recruitment that was covered in mainstream media. Three Twin Cities men were found guilty in 2016 of trying to join the terrorist group ISIS. They were part of a group of young men who had worshiped and played basketball at Dar Al Farooq, but prosecutors never presented evidence suggesting mosque leaders were culpable for the group’s radicalization or recruitment.
Matthew Feldman, a history professor and director of the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right in Britain, said it’s common for websites like Third Rail Talk to play off the news to disseminate anti-Muslim content.
“This is cast in a very negative, suspicious, even dark light, which is suggesting that there is nefarious going on there and that imputation of being an enemy within,” he said. “The idea of being a threat is something that I know that Muslims have faced in non-Muslim majority countries since 9/11.”
Recent attempts to film the adjacent Smith Park, which is owned by the city, have mosque leaders and a charter school that shares the same building on edge.
Bloomington police say they’re investigating three incidents in which parents and school officials reported photographers showing up at the playground.
Deputy Chief Mike Hartley said the department is looking into whether harassment or stalking statutes were violated.
“If it was done with adults as the people subjects of being photographed, [it] may not be as alarming,” he said. “But when it’s small children, I think it just kind of raises the level of ‘what’s going on and for what purpose are you filming small children?’”
Farah, the Dar Al Farooq program director, also has two children at the charter school. He confronted one of the photographers during an Eid prayer in August and posted his own footage on Facebook as he asked the man to stop.
Larry Frost, a Bloomington resident, was at the park with a camera last month and cited his First Amendment right to photograph in a public space. He’s also an attorney who represented a Third Rail Talk photographer back in December, but he denied ongoing connections to the website.
“I wasn’t photographing children,” Frost said. “I was photographing the park.”
Frost said he's working pro bono for neighbors who’ve formed a group called “Friends of Smith Park.” The group claims the mosque and charter school’s use of the park is disturbing the neighborhood.
Frost declined to disclose what he plans to do with photos or videos from the park, citing attorney-client privilege. But he added, that’s not the point.
“The police and the city of Bloomington have a consistent pattern of trying to silence people who are critical of Dar Al Farooq. I don’t like that,” Frost said. “I wouldn't care if Dar Al Farooq was a Christian church or a Nazi little group or a bunch of old ladies doing knitting.”
The law does allow for people to take photos and videos in public spaces. But experts say videos that incite hate aren't appropriate even if they’re legal.
"I regret that there are plenty of ways in this world to intimidate people that isn't illegal,” Feldman said. “We also know that it wasn’t ordinance violations that brought this group down to film. You know it’s a much wider conspiracy theory that puts Muslims at the heart of whatever bad thing they say that they're combating.”
It's not just the mosque congregants who are on edge. Other Bloomington residents are showing up during Friday prayers every week to show their solidarity with Dar Al Farooq and try to keep the filming at bay.
Messages like “I heart my neighbors” and “be kind" are written with chalk on the sidewalk next to kids' scribbles.
John Moravec is one of the supporters who shows up Fridays. He said the new videos targeting Dar Al Farooq have added a new level of anxiety.
“That stuff inspires even more hateful action,” he said. “This stuff is produced, you got doomsday music that goes with it. They’re really saying, ‘If these people continue to congregate here, it’s going to be the end of the world, it’s going to be the end of the community,’ and that's just not true.”