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.

  • Laura

    I am deeply saddened to read about this sort of behaviour in my old backyard. I grew up in MN, attended university & grad school there, & I return every summer for vacation, to visit family & friends. I have close friends in Coon Rapids.

    The rest of the year I teach & live in the United Arab Emirates, a small Muslim country on the southern end of the Arabian (Persian) Gulf. I am completing my third year here.

    Last October I converted to Islam. I am now part of two worlds, which I see as both a blessing and a challenge. I worry about whether I am ready to stomach wearing my scarf when I go back home this summer (my first trip back to MN as a Muslim). Will I be targeted? Why? I’m a Minnesotan AND a Muslim. I was born in the USA but really, does this matter? We are all of immigrant origins. Why would someone firebomb a shop? Only a hateful and simple-minded racist, or an absolutely ignorant person would do such a thing.

    It’s embarrassing for me to share such stories with my Iraqi husband. When he hears such things, he asks me again if there really is freedom in America: freedom of speech, freedom of religion? I can only shake my head in sorrow and agree that he has asked some very good questions to which I say, “No, not really. You’re right.”

    It seems that hypocrisy is alive and well all around the world, not just in overtly corrupt governments, but also in those that put on a show pretending to the TV cameras, their own people and the rest of the world that they are not.

  • derese

    THE WHOLE CONFLICT TAKING PLACE IN THIS WORLD THESE DAYS ACTUALLY HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH RELIGION.THE DRIVERS OF EVIL ACTIONS ARE NOT RELIGIOUS AT ALL.THEY ARE NOT MUSLIMS OR CHRISTIANS OR OTHER RELIGIOUS FAITHFULS.THEY ARE JUST EVIL ,SELFISH PEOPLE WHOSE JUDGEMENT AND IQ IS SO POOR.THE VERY ESSENCE OF THE CLASHES OF THE TIME IS THE SCRAMBLE TO ECONOMIC POWER AND RESOURCES.AND IN ORDER TO GET SUPPORTERS TO THEIR AGENDA THEY USE RELIGION AS A COVER.A BILLION MOSLIMS CAN NOT CHANGE OR CONVERT 2 BILLION CHRISTIANS AND VIS VERSA.THE ONLY OPTION FOR PEACE IS TO RESPECT EACH OTHER AND LIVE TOGETHER.LOOK, WHO BENEFITED AS A RESULT OF THE CONFLICT OCCURED SO FAR? NOBODY.AND NOBODY WILL.BUT ON THE CONTRARY, IF ALL THE TIME ,MONEY& ENERGY AND MAN POWER WERE USED FOR THE BENEFIT OF SOCIETIES,IMAGIN THE PROSPERITY AND PEACE,BOTH MENTAL AS WELL AS PHYSICAL,WE MAY NOW HAVE.

    THE INCIDENT AT BLAIN EXAMPLIFIES THIS.THIS EVIL ACTION HURT THE OWNER OF THE STORE,THE PEOPLE SHOPING AT THE STORE,AND THE CASE DEMANDS INVESTIGATERS’ TIME&MONEY ,MONEY FOR THE VICTIM,AND MANY OTHER PHYSICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL REPRECAUTION.SO I BELIEVE PEOPLE SHOULD THINK TWICE BEFORE TAKING ACTIONS ON GROUNDS THAT SOME EVILE MINDS SAY OR INSTIGATE.

  • This sort of thing should shame all of us.

  • c

    Is this one of the ripples of the WAR ON TERROR our ‘Commander in Chief’ has initiated? (AKA the Indoctrination of the Republican party). I think that this ‘War’ has only created TERROR, (fear). Humans do some really crazy inhumane acts and think crazy ideas when they are consumed by fear.

    The action of bombing a corner store because of one’s religion is a terroristic act in itself and should be treated as one.

    I am having one nasty visceral reaction over this one. Totally visc’n.

  • bsimon

    Laura writes

    When he hears such things, he asks me again if there really is freedom in America: freedom of speech, freedom of religion? I can only shake my head in sorrow and agree that he has asked some very good questions to which I say, “No, not really. You’re right.”

    The problem is, both you and he are wrong. You’re doing the same thing you’re criticizing, which is drawing conclusions about the majority based on the actions of a minority – a very small minority. Frankly, its somewhat mind-boggling that you can live in the UAE and criticize the US for a lack of freedom of speech or religion.

  • c

    there seems to be a fairly large redneck community north of the cities-including blaine and if they are a minority well it seems that part of that minority includes the police department.

    the east side of st paul has a huuuuge immigrant population which you would THINK would detour racism on the east side but it does not. for such a minority (rednecks, racists) they sure make alot of noise. you must not have that type of activity in your neighborhood -bsimon. i must be drawing conclusions frommmmmm what i have observed?…sorry i am not big on quoting surveys or pie charts or graphs i just tell it like i witness it.

  • brian

    I think Laura and her Husband have a right to be mad, sad, and embarrassed by the anti-muslim sentiments of some people in this country, as we all do.

    I think BSimon does have a point. People from many Arab countries accusing the US of freedom of speech and religion violations is like the pot calling the kettle black. (I do think there are nicer ways of saying that though.)

  • c

    I think that the United Emirates is fairly westernized as far as the Arab countries go. this is of course only to what I noticed back in 1990 when i was in rhyad. and by now i would think that even conservative rhyad is more westernized.

  • brian

    I don’t think being westernized is the issue. All Arabs don’t have to think and dress like me for me to be happy. I think that term has some inherent prejudice in it (not that you meant it that way c, I’m sure I’ve used it too).

    Even the most “westernized” Arab counties have a ways to go in areas like freedom of speech, thought, and religion.

  • c

    “Frankly, its somewhat mind-boggling that you can live in the UAE and criticize the US for a lack of freedom of speech or religion. ”

    Brain- my comment about being ‘westernized’ was in reference to Bsimon’s comment towards living in UAE. What I was saying by “westernized” which is a term used-commonly-to descibe European and American …anything west. Like western medicine practices vs eastern medicine. Get it? There was no implied ‘West is Best’ here.

  • Bob Collins

    Just to kind of steer this back to the point of the post, the question last night was what can people do to create better relations.

    One suggestion from an American Muslim woman was that immigrant Muslim women look other women in the eye and make contact.

    The question of whether that’s possible where men are concerned elicited some interesting clarification after one American male said he didn’t engage in conversation because he didn’t want to offend.

    “We can say hello,” one Muslim woman said. “But we’re not allowed to mingle. (I think without her husband involved). And we can’t shake hands or touch.”

    I wonder how many people know that?

    One suggestion to learn more was Islam 101, a Web site. Another is the engagemn Web site.

  • brian

    Yes, I understand what you meant by westernized, and like I said, I didn’t think you meant it in any prejudicial way. I just think there is usually some inherent prejudice in the word.

    You used the fact that the UAE are more westernized than most Arab countries to refute bSimon’s assertion that people from the UAE shouldn’t be criticizing the US. Doesn’t that imply that being more western is better than being less?

  • brian

    I always feel uncomfortable saying “Hi” or looking at women in head scarves because I don’t want to offend. That is helpful to know.

    (sorry for getting off topic, Bob)

  • c

    “Just to kind of steer this back to the point of the post, the question last night was what can people do to create better relations.”

    Gracious Bob, if this is the intent-or the point of the post- of what you want us to sway our answers towards than you should state that up front.

    “How can we create better relations?” there, pretty simple and you would get more answers that you wanted to hear and not what peoples opinion is about crimes commited on racism.

  • bsimon

    c writes

    “you must not have that type of activity in your neighborhood”

    I didn’t say that. It would be naive of me to argue that our country is perfect in terms of race relations or religious tolerance. That is why I didn’t make that argument. I also understand that the UAE is a far more tolerant country than most others in that part of the world. But if you stack up religious freedom and freedom of speech in the US compared to the UAE, I’m thinking we’re going to come out ahead – warts an all – every time. My beef with Laura’s comment is that she’s telling her husband that America really doesn’t have religous freedom or freedom of speech. That is flat out wrong. We certainly have bigots, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have freedom of speech & religion.

  • Bob Collins

    It should be obvious that the point of the post was to get past the us vs. them and get to the us vs. us. I mean, sure, we can have the same old discussion about us vs. other countries, but we’re reaelly focusing on the HERE and now.

    The fact of the matter is whether the UAE is or isn’t tolerant has nothing to do with Blaine or Anoka County or Minnesota meeting an expectation of behavior.

    In other words, “at least we’re not the UAE,” isn’t an appropriate response to what appears to be an increasingly bad situation HERE.

    We can’t do anything about the UAE. We have some control over Minnesota.

    Brian is right when he talks about freedom of religion/speech existing in the U.S. It exists for the most part and it exists as an idea. But Laura is also right that it does not exist in practicality for some people. It didn’t exist for the convenience store owner, it didn’t exist for the Muslim couple that was out walking in their neighborhood only to have a cop stop and ask them what they were doing there, it didn’t exist for the woman who was run off the road in Blaine earlier this week.

    And obviously it’s not just Muslims we’re talking about here. It’s just that it presently is in the news.

    A country’s principles erode in small bits, usually. So the question becomes, what are we willing to do about that?

  • c

    I’m thinking we’re going to come out ahead – warts an all – every time

    ? I didn’t follow that one.

    how do we show that they are welcome?-as Bob asks us to write about. As it is implied in the article, you can’t teach tolerance to a group who doesn’t want to learn.

    So Bob you link on Islam 101 will not do squat for those who it is intended for unless you duct taped them to a chair and force read it to them.

    (But I hear that redneck group likes duct tape)

  • c

    for some reason my computer locks up when i am posting, sorry about the double post (again)

  • bsimon

    “how do we show that they are welcome?-as Bob asks us to write about. As it is implied in the article, you can’t teach tolerance to a group who doesn’t want to learn.”

    There is a very basic – you could call it crude – trait that, on the one hand, makes us human, but on the other creates problems in interpersonal relationships. The trait is that we categorize quickly & make decisions based on those categorizations. Generally speaking we are all more tolerant of & comfortable with people that we perceive to be like ourselves, whether you’re measuring by race, religion, nationality, education level, socio-economic status, fashion sense, or what-have-you.

    So when you take a random immigrant and plunk them down in the middle of a MN suburb mostly populated by descendants of Scandinavians, there’s often not a lot of commonality. The immigrant, more often than not, will dress differently, speak with an accent, look differently (i.e. skin, hair, possibly makeup & jewelry), eat different food, worship in a different place, etc. On the surface, there’s not a lot of commonality, which usually means that person A will view person B as either a novelty or a danger. Given the events of 2001 and since then, the latter is more likely. That, of course, doesn’t justify such a conclusion.

    So the question is how do you get people to recognize what makes us the same, rather than what makes us different? And who’s job is it?

  • bsimon

    To put it another way, a neighbor of mine talks funny. I can’t help but think of her the same way I think of other people that talk funny. Bob, for how long did you suffer that fate when you moved here? (She’s from MA) Or did a career in radio mostly train the accent out?

  • c

    So the question is how do you get people to recognize what makes us the same, rather than what makes us different? And who’s job is it?

    upbringing.

    it starts with mom and dad. if mom and dad accept racial slurs and disrespectful treatment to others you will see this in the child….who ‘grows up’ and has children of their own.

    for instance,

    lets say your child plays on a sports team, and some kid on the team is bullying another kid. where does that come from? and if it continues after you mention it to the parents i think you can figure out where the child is learning it from.

    (this was NOT my child who was being bullied but another child on the team. not to sound self righteous in anyway-but this is a huuuuge issue with me and i taught my son that BULLYING IS INTOLERABLE. so he sticks up for the one being picked on and when he tells me about it i compliment him on his behavior and i really make a big deal out of it.

    i was sort of a bully growing up….i was the youngest of 5 and learned at an early age the strongest survive.

  • bsimon

    The first summer I moved here (from WI), I recall being in line for a bathroom in some overcrowded bar in St Paul on Grand Old Day. Some drunk was rambling on obnoxiously and another guy in the line asked, loudly, “Is he from Iowa or Wisconsin?” (turns out he was from IA)

    So, c, if the answer is ‘upbringing’, are you saying that there’s nothing to be done about whomever firebombed the store in Blaine? Is everyone over the age of, say, 13, beyond hope? If a whole passel of adults are responsible for raising their kids ‘right’, but those adults are beyond hope (having been raised ‘wrong’ themselves), is that a viable solution?

  • Bob Collins

    //Bob, for how long did you suffer that fate when you moved here?

    I didn’t suffer — too much — an accent problem. I did suffer an East Coast personality “problem.” I didn’t fully understand the importance of understanding passive aggression in communication nor the reluctance of verbal honesty.

    Your question, though, is very insightful because many of us, no doubt, have been — on occasion — “strangers in a strange land.”

  • Bob and others,

    I think the comment about “we can…we can’t” (smile / shake hands and touch) touches on something interesting, because certainly different Muslims have different interpretations of religious requirements.

    My dearest friend Yasmine, for instance, hugs my husband Daniel, and is certainly an observant Muslim and loves God. On the other hand, it’s true, many observant Muslim women do not shake hands with men.

    But perhaps the best thing to do–if we are to engage in a real conversation–is to ask individual men and women what they believe, what makes them comfortable, and so on. Reading “Islam 101” is good…and reading EngageMN.Com is great, but I think it’s important not to get too caught up in what “all Muslims” believe, any more than we’d get caught up in what “all Catholics” believe, knowing there are a multiplicity of beliefs. Islam, of course, having a much looser hierarchy than Catholicism.

    I hope my tone doesn’t imply some sort of special knowledge or authority (of which I have none); I just think that nothing can replace person-to-person conversation. Even just emailing a question to one of the writers on EngageMN….

  • c

    racism is not illegal. what would interest them into reading a book about islam?

    i am not saying that there is no hope for them but I am saying what reason would cause them to change their mind? Maybe if we put them in the same situation as these new imigrants are in?

    I think that the ones who fire bombed the store have the potential to change but unless they are caught and forced to rehabilitate they won’t.

    I walked into a hockey arena on the east side where my son was at practice on the night of ash wednesday. i still had ashes on my forhead and one of the other moms had to point out, not verbally but with gestures over her face that i had dirt on my forehead. i don’t think she was trying to be racist i think she just didn’t realize it was ash wednesday….maybe.

    i don’t know why do peole have to point out that one of these things is not like the other and make an issue out of it?

  • c

    see that east coast in your face -i think-has some good points about it too. if you have something to say, you say it. here in minnesota, if they are offended they will beat around the bush, gives ‘like instances’ to what offended them without telling you what is really bothering them…or they will play a song for you and expect you to figure it out.

    or for some just blow up inside and bomb your house.

    Minnesota nice.

  • Lily

    Let’s not make this issue about the northern suburbs. There is hate everywhere, but it is perhaps more visible in Blaine. I happen to know that their police department is a progressive department that has suffered its own losses. Let’s work together to try to figure this stuff out. It is true that new immigrants stand out in Blaine consisderably more than in the Cedar Riverside area. However, I daresay the challenges for all are the same. It isn’t easy, but we really have no other good option than to try to live together.

  • c

    It would be nice if the people who firebombed the store came forward or at least someone who knew something about it came forward. This would be a step in the right direction. Then immigrants could see that WE do care-(we being anyone who is originally from the US). An AUTHENTIC apology would also be appreciated. To admit all the horrible things that YOU have done to these people takes alot of courage. But I believe no healing on both sides can take place until certain people step forward.

    So it is up to YOU, (I am talking to whomever took part in the bombing, or any of you who know something about it and will not come forward. This makes you just as guilty as the one who did the crime itself).

  • Jamie

    I have mixed feelings about these issues. It is absolutely wrong of course to firebomb stores and run people off the road and the like. But I don’t feel very welcoming of Muslim people, and some of the questions posed here tell why that is so. The biggest reason for me is how women are treated in Muslim communities. Having to wonder if we can talk to Muslim women or shake their hands is illustrative of why I don’t want to be welcoming.

    I’ve heard several times all the Talking Points that Muslims disseminate about this issue, including by women who (erroneously, in my view) call themselves Muslim feminists. Those talking points can mostly all be refuted. If the women have lots of money or are connected to power, things may be different for them, but the fact is that most Muslim women are less than second-class citizens in their communities. Sometimes that can be attributed to Islam (some would say, particular interpretations of Islam); sometimes it is because of culture; sometimes it’s a combination.

    And I know that lots of non-Muslim cultures and religions and individuals also treat women badly (many fundamentalist Christians, for example, and possibly the same guys who do the hate crimes against Muslims in Blaine). I don’t want to welcome them into my community either. So it’s hard for me to even want to find where our commonalities are, a non-starter, you might say. It’s really, really hard for me to get past that.