A problem grows in the north metro

“Man, it felt so good to hear the customs agent say, ‘Welcome home’ when I’d get back from an overseas trip,” Arafat Elbakri fairly gushed to me Thursday night. He was reminiscing. Since 9/11, says the Egyptian-born Coon Rapids man, he’s usually pulled aside and interrogated instead.

“I used to be so proud when I’d go back to Egypt to say, ‘I live in America.’”

Still reminiscing. He’s frustrated now by what he sees as a talk-radio-fed hatred against Muslims.

“I don’t believe we can change the world,” he told a crowd of about 100 people who showed up at a forum in Anoka, “but we can try to make these people not feel comfortable and proud to hurt others under the name of patriotism.”

These people include whoever firebombed Mohammad Ismail’s convenience store on 109th Street in Blaine last January. It’s a crime that has not been classified as a hate crime by police, but about which there is no doubt by the 100 who attended the forum, which was intended to explore ways to improve relations between the growing Muslim community in the region and the natives.

The FBI, the Anoka County attorney, the mayor of Blaine, and a representative of the Blaine Police Department tried to assure a decidedly mild-mannered audience they take the issue seriously, but not everyone buys it.

Chris Schumacher, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says five days before the January firebombing, someone in a truck threw a bottle at Ismail. “Maybe he was aiming for the garbage can,” Schumacher says a Blaine cop told Ismail.

On Monday, someone shouted at a Muslim woman in a parking lot on 109th Street in Blaine, “Get out of here and get off 109th,” she reported. That’s the same street as the charred convenience store.

On Tuesday, according to one person in the audience, a Muslim woman — his wife — driving in Blaine was driven off the road by a man in a pickup truck.

Blaine has a problem. And Blaine knows it.

“I have complete embarrassment that someone who looks like me might have done something like this,” said Joe Belcheck of Coon Rapids.

In a county that’s growing twice as fast as Minnesota as a whole, the number of Muslims is also increasing. A survey by CAIR showed Minnesota is one of 12 states where American Muslim voters are concentrated.

Contributions to a reward fund for information about the firebombing has swelled it to $4,000. Some churches in the region have made contributions to help Ismail get his store rebuilt.

He did not attend the forum.