When terrorists leveled New York City’s Twin Towers, Kassim Busuri shared the same fear felt by all the other eighth-graders sent home early from his middle school classroom in North Mankato, Minn. It wasn’t until the next day that he also had to shoulder everyone else’s fear.
As one of a handful of refugees and the only Muslim boy in his class, classmates directed a barrage of questions his way: “Are all Muslims the same way, as what these people did? Did your religion teach you to attack non-believers?”
“People were asking me questions I couldn’t answer,” said Busuri, who before then had never considered himself particularly devout. Suddenly, the confused teen needed to have his own soul-searching conversations with his imam, or religious leader. He, too, needed answers.
He got them. “I became more religious, and more informed about my religion because I was defending it,” said Busuri, of Jordan, Minn., who runs a day care center in Shakopee and an adult day center in St. Paul. “People said, ‘Your religion is a religion of terrorism,’ and I’d say, ‘No, Islam is about peace.’ I knew that they were scared when they were saying things like that to me.”
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, forced a long reckoning for many Muslims in Minnesota, one that was as much internal to their communities and to themselves as it was to the community at large. Suddenly under a microscope, Muslims found themselves confronted by classmates and co-workers, law enforcement and political leaders, media and neighbors, and even each other. It’s scrutiny that has never fully gone away.
“Imagine if you, and your brother, and your sister, and your father, and your mother, all of you were suspected as criminals. What would you be feeling? That was every Muslim household after Sept. 11,” said Imam Hassan Mohamud of the Minnesota Dawah Institute, a mosque, school and social services provider in St. Paul. “The Muslims, they were calling each other, they were stating don’t leave your home, don’t go to work.”
Some women asked religious leaders if they could temporarily remove their traditional head coverings, or hijab, to better blend into society. The prospect split imams, Mohamud said, with most leaning against it.
Some Muslims — many of them immigrants and refugees — put American flags over their doors or work desks to prove their patriotism. For others, like Jaylani Hussein, the increased public scrutiny inspired a sense of urgency and a need to organize and respond.
Hussein was 19, still a student at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids and having breakfast with his mother when news broke of the attacks in New York. Within months, he and five other students had organized the Muslim Student Association on campus. Critics arrived at their meetings to tell them “we were terrorists, we were sleeping giants,” he recalled.
The reaction made him more resolute. Hussein, who was invited after the attacks to speak about Islam at progressive Christian churches, later joined the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and eventually became its executive director.
Samakab Hussein, a St. Paul resident who once ran for city council, said some animosity has never truly gone away. He called the rhetoric of the past four years especially difficult to stomach.
“What about mass shootings in America? When one white man does that, we don’t say they all do that,” he said. “Imagine if I applied the same formula to white Americans we apply to Muslims, assuming every white American was a mass shooter. That’s not right. The word ‘Islam’ literally means peace. That’s what people don’t understand.”
HATE CRIMES PROLIFERATE
In 2000, the year before 9/11, the FBI reported 28 official “hate crimes” — or documented criminal acts of verbal abuse, harassment or violence — motivated by anti-Islamic sentiment throughout the U.S. The next year, that ballooned to 481 incidents.
Those numbers would decline in time, while remaining in the triple-digits. In 2019, there were 176 documented anti-Islamic crimes, according to the federal bureau’s uniform crime statistics.
The Anti-Defamation League has called hate crimes heavily underreported, and the FBI has acknowledged that only about 2,100 of 15,000 participating law enforcement agencies across the country actually submitted data in 2019.
Within 11 weeks of the attacks of 9/11, the Council on American-Islamic Relations chronicled more than 1,450 anti-Muslim incidents in the U.S., including eight in Minnesota. One incident involved a man in his 60s, wearing traditional Somali clothing, who was punched by an unknown assailant at a Minneapolis bus stop. The man died days later, but lacking more information about the perpetrator’s intent, authorities declined at the time to label the assault an official hate crime.
LOCAL CONNECTION TO 9/11
Adding to a backdrop of distrust was Minnesota’s connection to the terror attacks.
A few weeks before 9/11, Zacarias Moussaoui — a French citizen of Moroccan descent — was arrested in Eagan on immigration-related charges after raising suspicions at a flight school. He had used a Kinko’s store in Eagan “to access the Internet to get into contact with bin Laden group,” he wrote in a court motion — referring to Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11 and the leader of the international terrorist group al-Qaida. Moussaoui later pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to conspiring to kill U.S. citizens as part of the attacks. He is serving a lifetime prison sentence.
Relations between law enforcement and the Somali community in particular became strained. In November 2001, federal agents raided hawalas, or Somali-owned money-transfer shops, on suspicion they were helping to finance terrorists. Most of the shops and owners were absolved.
Over the years, CAIR-MN has emerged as a vocal critic of the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota, which has kept close tabs on the Muslim community. Other prominent Muslim leaders have worked closely with the office to combat extremism.
“There was division, but it’s good to collaborate with the law,” Samakab Hussein said. “If anyone is doing wrong, they should be held accountable. That’s what I believe in.”
Authorities have highlighted recruitment efforts that have lured some young Twin Cities men to fight for Islamist militant groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Jaylani Hussein said CAIR-MN meets with 100 to 150 Muslims annually who have been interviewed by federal law enforcement and are seeking legal guidance, “but the FBI has no case against them,” he said. “The questions stop once they have an attorney.”
PATRIOT ACT, WAR ON TERROR
In the weeks after New York’s Twin Towers were destroyed, President George W. Bush asked Americans not to discriminate against their Muslim neighbors. Meanwhile, his administration quickly rolled out the USA Patriot Act, a cornerstone of the government’s “War on Terror.”
The act allowed the FBI to lawfully surveil everyday Americans without probable cause and to monitor their phone, email, banking and internet activity. A government “no-fly” list barring certain travelers from airplanes came together so quickly that children under the age of 12 landed on it.
The domestic impacts of the War on Terror have been far-reaching, even two decades later, and have unfolded under leaders of both leading parties. Jaylani Hussein said he makes frequent trips to Somalia as part of a relief organization, “and I’ve never come back without being pulled into some sort of secondary screening.”
By 2008, anger against Muslims in America seemed to have died down. But then Barack Obama — a Black man whose father had been Muslim — was elected president. The anti-Muslim sentiment would soon gain new footing, Jaylani Hussein said.
In August 2017, a fire-bombing at the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington unfolded just as members began to gather for prayers. No one was injured, though the imam’s office was damaged.
Anti-government activist Michael Hari of Illinois — leader of the “White Rabbits” militia group — was convicted last year on five counts related to hate crimes and civil rights violations. Two accomplices had previously pleaded guilty.
Some “protect America” rhetoric came down from the top.
Calling refugees a cover for terrorists, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in January 2017 that banned foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the U.S. for 90 days. Despite legal challenges, the so-called “Muslim ban” was modified and extended throughout his presidency. It ended in January, shortly after the change in administration.
“During Trump’s time, the fear was back. ‘Islam’ was the problem. That’s what he was saying,” said Mohamud, of the Minnesota Dawah Institute. “Muslims believe Islam was never the problem. … It’s the practice of some Muslims that was the problem. But he was attacking the whole religion, not some followers of the religion.”
Mohamud said despite all the distrust, the events of 9/11 also opened an opportunity to engage with non-Muslims and strive for better understanding across cultures and faiths.
“After 20 years, what are the big lessons we can learn from both sides? Americans, many of my non-Muslim friends, what they learned is Muslims are not as they’ve been painted after Sept. 11,” he said. “What we learned, also, is all white people are not racist.”