When Tigani Mohamoud bought a fixer-upper house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he remembered an adage from Sudan: know your neighbors. He introduced himself.
Islam wasn’t exactly foreign to this spot off the Cedar River: only a few blocks away sits the Mother Mosque of America, the longest-standing mosque in North America. He said his mostly white, working-class neighbors could tell he was Muslim from his last name.
In June, on one of Mohamoud’s trips to the empty home—he lives in Iowa City, a 40-minute drive away, with his pregnant, hijab-wearing wife and two-year-old daughter—he found his house broken into.
Holes were punched in the drywall, and hate was scribbled in graffiti on the rafters, the windows, the siding, and the walls inside: “Fuck Muslims.” “You will be killed here.”
“What did I do? What did I do?” Mohamoud thought.
Islamophobia, in some ways, has become the status quo in America—an anti-Muslim white noise. In December, 15-year-old Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein was killed after being hit by an SUV outside a Kansas City mosque. In February, an envelope with three hate messages—“we will burn all of you,” “leave our country,” “we hate you”—was left at the Darul Arqum Islamic Center in Ames, Iowa. And in May, dozens of armed bikers held an anti-Muslim rally outside a mosque in Phoenix.
Since the 9/11 attacks, yearly Islamophobic hate crimes have been consistently five times higher than the pre-terror average. The Justice Department estimates that two out of three potential hate crimes aren’t even reported because because victims fear police won’t help.
But the execution of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill in February has put instances of everyday Islamophobia under a closer glare.
In Margaret Talbot’s chilling New Yorker piece, “The Story of a Hate Crime,” the sister of Deah Barakat, one of the three murdered in Chapel Hill, explained how hard it has been for crimes against Muslims to get attention: “It’s time people started talking about how real Islamophobia is—that it’s not just a word tossed around for political purposes but that it has literally knocked on our doorstep and killed three of our American children.”
What happened in Cedar Rapids to Mohamoud is all too familiar for Muslims in the U.S., an example of an all-American crime: a brazen display of Islamophobia that elicits pledges of support from the police, local government, and neighborhood, only to happen again.
“If they kill me, it will be in this house,” Mohamoud told The Gazette.
Nestled in the middle of a residential neighborhood, the Mother Mosque looks more like a toy house than a place of worship. Its white siding is offset by a bright green awning and dome. Built by Lebanese and Syrian immigrants in 1934 as the “Moslem Temple,” street signs flag the mosque.
In 1971, the larger Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids was built and became the main place of worship for the area’s Muslims. Today, the Mother Mosque is more of a historical site—a tourist attraction few know about—and Imam Taha Atta Tawil is somewhat of a local celebrity; he’s the Muslim chaplain for federal and state prisons in Iowa.
Mohamoud, an eight-year resident of Iowa in his mid-thirties, recently obtained his citizenship. In 2013, he bought a broken-down house using cash from his IT job and the sale of his land in Sudan. He did not know the Mother Mosque was so near. While the downstairs of the home was in desperate need of rehab, the upstairs, mostly intact, is where he stored materials while waiting for a city permit to renovate.
He wanted to raise his family in this home. Unfortunately, the neighborhood wasn’t welcoming.
First there was a burglary: thieves stole the water heater, drywall, windows, doors, and wiring. Then the windows downstairs were smashed. It wasn’t uncommon for the dilapidated houses to be vandalized. Mohamoud said he had called 911 and filed police reports, but never heard anything back.
Then, someone threw a rock at his head while he was mowing the lawn. He ran to the alley, but whoever did it had disappeared along a row of garages. He was angry. “These people really don’t like me,” Mohamoud said to himself. The graffiti happened a week later, just as the holy month of Ramadan was beginning.
The neighborhood was full of fixer-uppers. In 2008, Cedar Rapids was hit with a devastating flood. The Cedar River rose to more than 30 feet; 1,200 city blocks were inundated and nearly 6,000 homes were evacuated. The Mother Mosque’s library was badly damaged—Qurans, diaries, rugs, all destroyed. Most residents were forced to permanently leave their home or rebuild. FEMA cleaned out homes and then sold them.
“Having lived in the neighborhood and having seen the devastation, and seeing everybody work so hard to build these homes back up, that’s what added an extra level to the feeling that this hate crime was extra heinous,” Iowa State Representative Liz Bennett told Fusion.
“I couldn’t believe. I could not believe what these people had written all over this house,” said Miriam Amer, executive director of the Iowa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) “These are very explicit threats.” She spoke to Fusion on behalf of Mohamoud because he is shy and does not speak English well.
Imam Tawil said that an anti-Muslim hate crime like this has never happened in Cedar Rapids. He blames the vandalism on “immature kids” playing a cruel game. Despite the writing on the wall, he said this crime isn’t about Islam.
“This is not the usual,” Tawil told Fusion. “So it’s a matter of race, African or black and coming to that neighborhood. So it seems that there is some kind of race in it more than religion or anything else.”
Zaid Naim exited his car after an accident in Houston last month. The other driver told him to “go back to Islam” and shot him in the head.
Ruth Nasrullah, spokesperson at CAIR’s Houston chapter, is behind the push to have the road rage murder classified as a hate crime. Moments like the protest of armed bikers outside a Phoenix mosque, she said, are evidence of a double-standard towards Islam.
“If you imagine that happening around a different house of worship, a church or a temple, it just would be totally, totally unacceptable,” she told Fusion. “When it’s Muslims, it’s sort of like there’s a little bit of hesitation, a sense that this may be acceptable.”
Evelyn Alsultany, associate professor of American Culture and director of Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan, said our society is not exposed to enough stories of Arabs and Muslims as normal Americans. Instead, these violent narratives feed into a pervasive Islamophobia industry—fueled by reports of terrorism and Hollywood caricatures.
“When we turn on the news we tend to see, these days, ISIS, Boko Haram,” Alsultany told Fusion. “I don’t think it’s a stretch of the imagination for some people to just conclude that Muslims are violent, they don’t belong in America. It’s this kind of thinking that’s leading to the hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims.”
Just last week, when a 24-year-old gunman killed four Marines in Chattanooga, news anchors preempted dramatic segments about the rise of ISIS with a disclaimer that as far as they knew the alleged shooter, Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, was acting on his own.
The pattern of coverage of this “domestic terror” act was as expected for Muslim Americans. Abdulazeez was at once described as “an all-American boy” and a homegrown terrorist: he was Kuwaiti-born; he wore a beard; he prayed at the mosque, he sometimes blogged about Islam; his high school yearbook quote was, “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?”
Days after the hate crime in Cedar Rapids last month, 100 residents gathered across the street from Mohamoud’s house in Time Check Park for a “Love-in.” Photographer Lori Carlson, one of the hosts of the peaceful demonstration, is not Muslim. She said love is her religion. Representative Bennett, CAIR’s Amer, and the Mohamouds were there. Even the police chief showed up.
“He did say a few words,” Carlson told Fusion. “Of course he said he was working on, you know, justice and that type of thing.”
For those in attendance, it was a powerful moment, a symbolic gesture that the city, and those in power, would not tolerate this hatred. Police have increased patrols around the neighborhood and the Mother Mosque. No one has been arrested. Since then, a gunshot was reportedly fired at a mosque in Moline, Illinois, a short drive away. And the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids received a hate email saying that Islam was garbage only a few days ago.
“I’m not afraid anymore,” Mohamoud’s wife told those who had gathered, moving many to tears. “I’m not afraid. I want to move into this house.”
That won’t happen. Mohamoud was told that it is too costly to rehab the home. It will likely be torn down.