Minnesota mosques vandalized, robbed amid increase in reported hate crimes

Vandalism damage at the Tawfiq Islamic Center.

Earlier this month, two separate mosques were vandalized and robbed just days apart, each suffering tens of thousands of dollars in damages. 

Though the motives of the suspects in both incidents remained unclear, hate crimes against Muslim Minnesotans and other communities have been on the rise in recent years. Experts and activists say the troubling trend is reflected both in Minnesota and nationwide, as each attack worsens fear within the state’s Muslim communities.

The incidents

Early in the morning on Labor Day, congregants of the Tawfiq Islamic Center who arrived for prayers entered to find the mosque had been vandalized. Surveillance footage revealed that the night before, an individual used a crowbar to break into the back door of the mosque in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood before proceeding to force his way into nearly every room in the mosque, causing more than $50,000 in damages. 

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The suspect pried open multiple safes and boxes that held tens of thousands of dollars in donations from worshippers and made off with the money. He remains at large.

Days later, the Islamic Center of St. Cloud saw two individuals reportedly smash windows, litter alcohol containers and smear blood throughout the building and steal two copies of the Quran. Two people were later arrested for the vandalism and robbery, which mosque officials estimated to have been between $15,000 and $20,000 in damages.

The two individuals were arrested by St. Cloud police hours later at a nearby motel. Police tracked them down using a motel room key that they had dropped while in the mosque.

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN), said the vandalism of the St. Cloud mosque is the fifth time this year that a place of worship for Muslim Minnesotans had been targeted — the most in the state’s history. Among those incidents was in June when a woman set a fire in an East Grand Forks mosque with a lighter and a spray can.

Vandalism damage at the Tawfiq Islamic Center.

Courtesy of CAIR-MN

Vandalism damage at the Tawfiq Islamic Center.

Though police haven’t yet determined motives for the suspects in either case, the incidents have left the mosques’ communities in fear. 

“Every attack not only creates a heightened sense of anxiety and fear, it also brings home the idea that something may happen to their mosque,” Hussein said. “The mosques that have not had incidents are not less worried – they’re more worried because they feel like they’re next on the list.”

Hate crimes

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began compiling and publishing a yearly report on hate crime data in 1991 after Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistics Act. The legislation defines hate crimes as “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.”

According to the latest FBI data, compiled by the Anti-Defamation League, 8,263 hate crimes were reported nationwide in the most recent data available, from 2020 – the highest since 2001. Minnesota saw 194 reported hate crimes, which is the most reported across the state since 2005.

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Reported Minnesota hate crimes by year, 2000-2020

Note: The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program defines hate crime as a “committed criminal offense which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias(es) against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Not all hate crimes are reported.

Source: FBI

In the U.S., FBI data show reported religious bias hate crimes began to significantly increase in 2016 when anti-Islamic hate crimes reported spiked to 307, up from an average of about 170 each year the five years prior. That was the highest anti-Islamic attacks had been since a flood of attacks on the Muslim community following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that year. Total reported religious hate crimes increased the following year, remaining at higher levels until a dip in the FBI’s 2020 numbers that may be attributed to fewer reports being filed during the pandemic.

In Minnesota, reported anti-Islamic hate crimes have ebbed and flowed, but have generally been higher in recent years than in years past. Reported hate crimes related to religion have been up in recent years, too.

“We can see that attacks on houses of worship have become more commonplace over the past decade or so,” said Steve Hunegs, executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “There’s nothing more depraved than attacking people who are going to houses of worship for religious observance.”

Reported religion and anti-Islamic Minnesota hate crimes by year, 2000-2020

Note: The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program defines hate crime as a “committed criminal offense which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias(es) against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Not all hate crimes are reported.

Source: FBI

Michael Lieberman of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that monitors extremism and hate groups, said recent years have seen more “in your face” hate speech – in part due to former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, which may have had an impact on people’s willingness to act on it. 

“Trump was someone who was involved in anti-semitic, racist dog whistles, xenophobia, intentionally polarizing words and actions, and those have consequences,” he said.

Another image of the damage at the Tawfiq Islamic Center.

Courtesy of CAIR-MN

Another image of the damage at the Tawfiq Islamic Center.

“Only the perpetrator of a hate crime, obviously, is responsible but the environment in which a perpetrator would be emboldened to act is something that we see as a reason why the number of hate crimes has increased,” he said.

Lieberman said the FBI’s data is “extraordinarily incomplete.” Of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country — including federal, state, local and tribal agencies — only about 2,400 reported one or more hate crimes in their jurisdiction. That makes it difficult to determine whether more hate crimes are being committed or reporting has gotten better.

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The remedy, Hussein said, is more public awareness and more investigative resources devoted by law enforcement agencies to prevent these kinds of attacks. 

In the meantime, CAIR has helped 17 mosques statewide gain access to federal grants to boost security. And Minnesota’s Muslim communities who have had their mosques attacked pick up the pieces, and continue to attend their mosques.

“We just want to be clear that wherever you come from, you will not deter us from coming to the mosque,” said Muhayadn Mohamed, president of the St. Cloud Islamic Center, during a solidarity event.