Thursday night would have been one of celebration for Muslims. Ramadan — the holiest month of the Islamic year — begins today, and the night before is supposed to be marked by prayer and remembrance. For members of Columbia’s Muslim community, however, a somber note has darkened the occasion.
“Tonight, we would be celebrating,” said Khenissi Ali. “Instead, we’re scared.”
Following Wednesday’s raid by federal agents on the Islamic American Relief Agency offices in Columbia, members of the Muslim community are in a state of surprise and disbelief, Ali said.
Ali, who attends prayer services at the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, said he does not speak for the Muslim community at large.
Rashed Nizam, president of the Islamic Center, echoed Ali’s thoughts.
“The Muslim community is surprised,” Nizam said. “The (IARA)helps the poor and orphans, so the question crosses their minds. They wonder what’s wrong, what is going on.”
Nizam said the only connection with the Islamic Center and the IARA is their location.
“There is no relationship between the center and the IARA,” Nizam said. “The center is designed as a place of prayer and social gathering for Muslims. (The IARA) is a relief organization in the same town.”
It appears, however, that at least one of the mosque’s leaders is connected to the charity. Ali Bagegni, the prayer leader of the Islamic Center and the principal of the Islamic School of Columbia-Missouri, is included on the Islamic American Relief Agency’s board of directors, according to the organization’s tax forms. Bagegni was at his office
at the school Thursday, but declined comment on the raid of the relief agency.
Nonprofit organization reports from the Missouri Secretary of State’s office indicate that Bagegni has been on the relief agency’s board of directors since 1992.
The Islamic School of Columbia-Missouri’s Web site includes a November 2002 newsletter thanking IARA-USA for providing services to the school, which included “transportation, bulk mail fund-raising and financial expertise.”
Ali was at the mosque Thursday evening but said his family has seen enough to feel intimidated.
“My wife and daughter were spit at on the street,” Ali said. “They were targets because they wore veils.”
There is no restriction on IARA members activities, but Ali indicated that members would likely not attend services tonight.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said he is not worried about backlash against Muslims , but the department is being cautious.
“We’re always a little concerned about that possibility, and so that’s why we want to, as often as possible, remind the community that they’re not one in the same — that the mosque and this relief center are different entities,” Boehm said. “If there is any anger or something that’s out there in the community related to what happened (Wednesday), we want to make sure that’s not directed toward the mosque itself.”
Boehm said beat officers who work in the area of the mosque are trying to be as visible as possible. Boehm discussed these issues with the head of the mosque and encouraged him to contact the department if any incidents occur.
“As local law enforcement, we not only have a responsibility to assist the FBI with their investigation but we also have a responsibility to make sure our citizens who attend the mosque can have a safe environment,” he said.
Islamic organizations in Missouri are also concerned about the legal issues that may arise regarding contributions to charities at this time of year. James Hacking, director of the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations said with the holy month of Ramadan approaching, many Muslims are giving “zakat,” an annual contribution to charities. Hacking said, “in our belief, you get extra blessings for giving during Ramadan.”
Muslims seeking a clear “seal of approval” from the U.S. government for good and legitimate charities have not had much help, Hacking said.
“We have repeatedly asked for guidance from the Treasury Department,” he said. “No Muslim would knowingly support terrorism.”
Hacking said it is also troubling when federal raids are conducted in this “middle ground where it’s based on presidential fiat rather than the judicial process.”
“We hope that they’re given the opportunity to defend themselves,” he said.
Yunos Yusof, originally from Afghanistan and a congregant at the Islamic Center , said he considers the actions taken by the federal government against the relief agency in Columbia discriminatory but said he wasn’t surprised.
“The FBI said before that it was going to raid every Islamic center across the country,” Yusof said. “They are trying to connect terrorism with the month of Ramadan.”
Yusof said he moved to Columbia more than two months ago and knows little about the charity.
“All I know is what’s on a poster inside the mosque,” Yusof said. “It’s a charity that helps orphans and the poor.”
Missourian reporters Nigel Duara, Nadia Afifi, Kate Moser, Bernie Dorrough and Pate McMichael contributed to this report.