ME: A LONE MAN’S STUNT RAISES BROADER ISSUES
On a hot July night, a few dozen Somali men were kneeling shoulder to shoulder in prayer at a storefront mosque here when the door opened and the frozen head of a pig, an animal considered unclean in Islam, rolled across the floor.
Men fled in fear. A child fainted. Some called the police and ran after the person who had rolled the head in. A suspect, Brent Matthews, was quickly apprehended and charged with desecrating a place of worship. Mr. Matthews, 33, said that the incident was a prank and that he did not know the significance of a pig’s head.
Now, weeks later, Somali leaders say the incident has left a scar on their community of about 3,000 immigrants.
While they admit the act was the work of one man, it has heightened simmering tensions in this overwhelmingly white, working-class city of 35,000, where Somali refugees started flocking about five years ago, after first settling in more urban areas of the United States. Many said they came here because housing was inexpensive and Lewiston seemed a safe place to raise their families.
While much of Lewiston has been welcoming, some Somalis here believe the head incident reveals an undercurrent of suspicion and lack of understanding about their culture. According to the Census Bureau, Maine is 96 percent white.
“We’re not saying all of Lewiston is part of this,” said Imam Nuh Iman, leader of the mosque, the Lewiston-Auburn Islamic Center. “But this is the biggest impact you can have on a mosque, in the time of praying, to put in a pig’s head. It could have been a goat’s head, or a cow’s head. But it was a pig’s head.”
Phil Nadeau, the assistant city administrator, believes the incident was isolated but underscored the growing pains this city – whose mills and shoe factories, now closed, welcomed French-Canadian workers a century ago – is now going through.
“I think it’s a reflection of where we are right now. There’s a small group of people that will never accept this type of change in their community, ever,” said Mr. Nadeau, whose French-Canadian grandmother spoke only five words of English. “The second wave of non-English speakers to Lewiston is now the Somali population.”
Hussein Ahmed, 31, said the mosque incident came as Somalis here felt that they had finally started to move on from a 2002 open letter written by Laurier Raymond, then the mayor, which asked them to stop other Somalis from coming to the city. Mr. Raymond contended in his letter that the city was “maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally.”