The Portland Halaal Market on St. John Street was spray-painted Sunday morning with graffiti offensive to Muslims, and police and the market’s owner are calling it a hate crime.

Police, who said the incident occurred at 5 a.m., were on the scene at 269 St. John St. later Sunday morning reviewing videotape from a security camera and talking to Mahdi Ahmed, owner of the market.

The graffiti, spray-painted in red capital letters on the windows and brick on the side of the building, referred to Allah and included a sexual epithet. Allah was misspelled as “Alah.”

“This is a hate crime,” Ahmed said.

Officers at the scene did not comment, but shortly before 2:30 p.m. police issued a statement asking for the public’s help in identifying the perpetrator.

“Surveillance video shows a white male wearing a black-hooded sweatshirt painting the phrase at 5 a.m.,” Assistant Chief Vern Malloch said in the statement.


He said the graffiti was spray-painted on the A Street side of the building and that the damage was discovered and reported to police at 9 a.m.

“Because of the content of the graffiti and its placement on a business that caters to the Muslim community, this incident is being treated as a hate crime,” Malloch said. “The case will be referred to the Maine Attorney General’s Office and investigated by Portland police detectives.”

A person who violates someone’s civil rights in Maine by committing a hate crime could be charged with a felony, and jailed for up to 364 days and fined $2,000, according to the Maine Revised Statutes.

Malloch said the video was still being reviewed Sunday afternoon and will probably be made available Monday. WCSH-TV broadcast footage from the video Sunday night.

The market opened in 2002 and serves the Somali community and others. It sells halal foods that are allowed under Islamic dietary guidelines.

“We have a lot of customers from different religions,” said Hanad Nur, an employee at the market.


The store also serves as a hub for the Somali community.

Surveillance video from the Portland Halaal Market appears to show a white male in a hood vandalizing the building. Photo courtesy of WCSH-TV

Surveillance video from the Portland Halaal Market appears to show a white male in a hood vandalizing the building. Photo courtesy of WCSH-TV

By midmorning Sunday, the graffiti was attracting a growing crowd of onlookers. By shortly after noon, a store worker had washed off the graffiti.

“Everyone is upset. It’s sick,” said Assad Ahmad, who also works at the market.

The store has had a history of break-ins, said the building owner, Phuong Le. He said at various times thieves broke in the doors and once climbed down the chimney to get in to steal cigarettes. That is why the building was equipped with security cameras and bars over the doors, Le said.

Leaders in the Muslim community said while overt anti-Muslim incidents are rare in southern Maine, the incident does not surprise them.

“We know there are individual, very well-organized groups in northern Maine who tend to express anti-Islamic feelings and sentiments,” said Reza Jalali, a Muslim, author and multicultural student affairs coordinator at the University of Southern Maine. He did not elaborate.


Jalali estimated that the Muslim population in Maine is about 6,000. There are seven or eight mosques, he said, half of them in the Portland area.

Jalali said Muslims have long been a part of life in Maine and the United States. He said Muslims first came to Maine in large numbers in the 1920s, when Albanian Muslim immigrants arrived to work in the Biddeford textile mills.

“It is heartbreaking that there are people who fail to see that Islam has been part of the American narrative for centuries,” Jalali said.

Abdullahi Ahmed, a Somali Muslim who teaches science and Arabic at Deering High School in Portland, met with the store’s owner and other concerned residents Sunday afternoon.

“We want to make sure that law enforcement does their job,” he said.

Abdullahi Ahmed said he believes the incident is isolated and not directed at the Somali community. Although the incident will unnerve local Muslims and even frighten them, he said, most Muslims in Greater Portland feel very accepted.


“It is not OK. It is not acceptable. At the same time we realize that (it) is people who are lone wolves who do this,” he said.

Pious Ali, a Muslim and member of the Portland School Board, said the incident tells him that the Muslim community must continue to educate people about Islam.

“It is just disheartening. There are still a lot of uneducated individuals out there,” Ali said.

Jalali said the last anti-Muslim incident in Portland that he could recall was in 2011. In that case, someone spray-painted “Go home,” “Long live the West” and other words on a wall at the Maine Muslim Community Center on Anderson Street, the city’s largest mosque.

Police are asking anyone with information about Sunday’s incident to call 874-8575 or to provide information anonymously on the Portland police website by clicking on “submit an anonymous crime tip.”

Staff Writer Joe Lawlor contributed to this report.

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