A lone man’s stunt raises broader issues

LEWISTON, Me. — 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.

New York Times, 5 September 2006