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Minnesota Republicans fight among themselves about Islam

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STAR TRIBUNE — Abdi Mohamed is a Republican Trump voter with a red “Make America Great Again” hat to prove it, and he is a practicing Muslim.

Born in a Kenyan refugee camp, he now considers himself an American patriot: “It’s a beacon the world can look toward as a shining example,” said Mohamed, who caucused with Republicans in February and wants to help the party reach more Muslim-American voters.

The response from a small but vocal group of party activists, candidates and elected officials: No thanks.

Phillip Parrish is a GOP candidate for governor who scored a surprising third-place finish in the February GOP caucus straw poll — despite not having any money or conventional campaign organization — on the strength of urgent warnings about Muslims overrunning Minnesota.

Asked if America’s constitutional democracy and Islam are compatible, Parrish said, “No, absolutely not.”

Parrish and Republican elected officials like state Reps. Cindy Pugh and Kathy Lohmer are speaking to the strongly held beliefs of a slice of the party. But the charged rhetoric — like a Facebook item that both Pugh and Lohmer posted warning Republicans about Muslim-Americans “infiltrating” their caucuses — threatens to further alienate Muslim-Americans, a fast growing demographic that is already trending DFL.

Perhaps even more threatening to the party’s electoral prospects, the message that Muslims are not welcome in Minnesota also risks alienating non-Muslims, especially young voters and the kinds of educated suburbanites whose social views have grown increasingly tolerant in recent years. That’s evidenced by the rapid changes on social issues like same-sex marriage and their ambivalence toward President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

In an election year featuring a wide open governor’s race, two U.S. Senate elections and four U.S. House contests that could determine who controls Congress, party leaders are not eager for a divisive debate about Islam.
“The Republican Party is an open, welcoming and inclusive party,” said state GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who was adopted by her parents from South Korea and has tried to emphasize an optimistic, forward-looking message. “We want to welcome new people who share our values and are energized to elect Republicans.”

The message conveyed to Republicans on caucus night, however, was much more mixed.

Any caucus attendee can offer a resolution, and one that appeared at some caucus sites called on the party to “minimize and eliminate the influence of Islam within the Republican Party” and prohibiting any Islamic leader from giving the invocation at a party convention or event.

In a Facebook comment, Pugh, a Chanhassen Republican elected to the House in 2012, celebrated the resolution and others dealing with Muslim-Americans: “GOOD NEWS! All four, rock-solid resolutions introduced in my precinct caucus passed ‘with flying colors’! … almost unanimous. Caucus attendees were SO supportive & appreciative of these well-written resolutions. GREAT JOB! {thank you!}”

Pugh declined an interview request, as did Lohmer, a Stillwater Republican elected in 2010.

The resolutions will be taken up at the GOP state convention only if they are passed at congressional district conventions in the spring.

One resolution, written by activist Jeffrey Baumann, states that “Islam eschews man-made law such as the Constitution of the United States.” It continues: “Muslim leaders, religious or otherwise, must definitionally be advocates of Islamic law and opponents of man-made Constitutional law.”

In an interview, Baumann said that “when Muslims become sufficiently numerous, they begin to assert political force.” The result, he said, is a “crisis that could take many forms. It could involve warfare and bloodshed and death.”

In a letter distributed to caucusgoers, Parrish accused refugees — without naming them directly — of “extortion, exploitation and manipulation” while calling them “violent, abusive and ill-intended.”

In an interview, Parrish said he has gained expertise through military operations abroad.

“We’ve had hundreds of honor killings in Minnesota,” Parrish said, referring to a murder, usually of a woman, who has brought dishonor to a family. Such killings are usually associated with Islamic regions of the world.

Chuck Laszewski, a spokesman for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, called the claim “poppycock.”

There were 100 homicides total in all of Minnesota in 2016.

Setting aside Parrish’s claim, the spate of violence by perpetrators claiming they were acting in the name of Islam has had a transformative effect on the politics of some Minnesotans.

During a rally at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport before his election, Trump castigated the refugee resettlement program to the approval of the huge crowd and called the Somali resettlement a “disaster.”

Minnesota has in recent years seen two mall knife attacks in which the assailants said they were acting on behalf of Islam. A woman who is alleged to have lit fires at St. Catherine University in February also stands accused of trying to join Al-Qaida. Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim said recently there had been a total of 15 Al-Shabab and 15 ISIS-related prosecutions, the highest number of terrorism-related cases of any district in the nation.

Minnesota’s demographics have also undergone significant change: The state’s foreign-born population has risen rapidly in the past two decades, with about one in 12 born outside the United States, including 50,000 from Somalia and Ethiopia.

Natana J. DeLong-Bas, a scholar of Islam at Boston College and co-author of the new book “Shariah: What Everyone Needs to Know,” said there’s considerable confusion and misinformation about Islam. The word sharia, for instance, while often portrayed as Islamic law, actually means “broad values or objectives” rather than laws, she said.

“These values and objectives are protection of life, property, family, religion, intellect and the environment, pursuit of the common good, collective security, fair practice in the marketplace, and the provision of justice,” Delong-Bas said. Islamic law, on the other hand, is the subject of human rather than divine reasoning, and therefore subject to change, she said.

Delong-Bas rejected the notion that a Muslim cannot be an American: “Following sharia is perfectly compatible with upholding and defending the U.S. Constitution, as any Muslim who has ever taken the oath of office or served in the military has shown through example.”

Faisal Deri, a Muslim Republican who owns a risk management consulting firm and lives in Edina, said the entire discussion is a sideshow.

“Every party has some sort of fringe element that has certain views that do not work for all. This party is a big tent,” he said, nodding to a metaphor famously used by President Ronald Reagan. “Are the people in the tent going to agree on everything? That’s impossible.”

On the issues that matter, Deri said, the Republican Party is with him: support for small business, lower taxes and less regulation.

Mohamed, the young man with the MAGA hat, said he won’t be deterred by those in the party who don’t want him.

“I became a delegate almost out of spite,” he said of the recent caucus, where he was elected to be a delegate at the Senate district convention.

“To infringe on my rights? That’s the real threat.”

J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042

Minnesota

When radicalization lured two Somali teenagers … from Norway

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Mukhtar Ibrahim

In October 2013, two Somali teenage girls named Ayan and Leila shocked their parents by running away to join ISIS in Syria. Their radicalization story is unusual in that it happened in Norway.

Acclaimed Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent years researching what happened. Now her book, “Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad” is available in the United States.

Seierstad, who discusses her book Monday night at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, said she didn’t go looking for the story.

“The story actually came to me,” she said. “It was the father of the girls who actually wanted the story to be written.”

His name is Sadiq, a Somali man who worked for years to bring his family to Norway. He hoped for a better life. He thought things were going well, then everything collapsed when Ayan and Leila disappeared.

When the girls left home, their parents were in shock, Seierstad said. “They hadn’t understood what was this about. Why? And then as months went by and they got to learn more about radicalization, they realized that all the signs had been there. That the girls were like a textbook case of radicalization. And he [Sadiq] wanted the book to be written to warn others, to tell this story to warn other parents.”

It is a perplexing story. Ayan and Leila were bright, and opinionated. They didn’t put up with being pushed around.

“And that is somehow part of why they left, in their logic,” said Seierstad, adding that the girls were convinced Syria and ISIS offered a chance of eternal life.

“They believed that life here and now is not real life. Real life happens after death. And this life is only important as a test. So the better your score, the better you behave in this life, the better position you will have in heaven for eternity. So isn’t that better?”

Seierstad is known for her in-depth reporting. Her book “One of Us,” about Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway’s worst terror attack, is an international best-seller.

When published in Norway Seierstad said, “Two Sisters” became the top-selling book for two years running. What pleases her most is the breadth of her readership. She gets email from young Somali girls, and also from government officials who want to prevent future radicalization.

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Ilhan Omar documentary among Minnesota projects headed to New York’s Tribeca Film Festival

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STAR TRIBUNE — Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival will have more than a touch of Minnesota this year. Two projects shot largely in the state will be part of the event that runs from April 18-29 in New York City.

“A Time for Ilhan,” by documentary filmmaker Norah Shapiro, chronicles Ilhan Omar’s successful bid to win election to the Minnesota House of Representatives, making her the first Somali-American, Muslim woman to hold state office in the United States.

In addition, Rosemount native Naomi Ko will be shopping a pilot for a potential series. “Nice,” which was mostly shot in the Twin Cities, stars Ko as a young Korean-American woman who faces a crisis when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Ko, who appeared in the 2014 indie hit “Dear White People,” is hoping screenings at the festival will attract a streaming service or network that will green-light an entire season.

The festival, now in its 17th year, will also feature new documentaries about Gilda Radner and the New York Times, as well as high-profile feature films, including the sci-fi romance “Zoe,” starring Ewan McGregor, last seen showing off his Midwest accent in “Fargo.”

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After charges in Justine Damond killing, racial dynamic remains a focal point

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STAR TRIBUNE — To some, the question loomed large as a former Minneapolis police officer was charged in the killing of an unarmed woman: Would the charges — the first in a case involving a fatal shooting by police in recent Hennepin County history — have come if the officer hadn’t been black and Somali-American and the victim hadn’t been white?

An intense debate over the shooting’s uncommon racial dynamic has played out among police reform activists, in the city’s Somali malls and among the police department’s own officers. Even some passionate proponents of police accountability balked at celebrating the murder and manslaughter charges against Officer Mohamed Noor, saying they reflected the justice system’s racial bias as much as previous local decisions not to charge cops who kill in the line of duty. Some Somali-Americans worried their community, rather than the use of deadly force by an officer, will end up on trial.

But others said the charges are a clear win in the push for more scrutiny of police use of force and possibly the beginning of a tougher approach to law enforcement accountability. Noor shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old Australian spiritual healer and meditation coach, minutes after she called police to report a suspected sexual assault in her southwest Minneapolis neighborhood.

“There have been numerous shootings that the community felt were unjustified and this one with Ms. Damond is one of them,” said Nathaniel Khaliq, past president of the St. Paul NAACP. “I hope it lowers the threshold for officers to be charged in deadly shootings.”

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced the charges Tuesday, more than eight months after Damond’s killing and nearly two years to the day after he declined to charge two white officers in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Jamar Clark. Damond’s family welcomed the charges, calling them “one step toward justice for this iniquitous act.”

Criticism of the charges

On the question of the Noor charges at Remix Barber and Beauty shop in Minneapolis Friday morning, the predominantly black clientele was in near-agreement: After years of pressure for more accountability in fatal officer shootings, a black cop had been made the fall guy. Customers and co-owner Chanda Tolbert said the charges came as no surprise given the races of the officer and the woman who was shot.

“Race has everything to do with it,” customer Teena Hill said. “It’s not a justice system for us.”

Reaction at nearby Jones and Jones Barber Shop, only a block from the site of Clark’s shooting in 2015, echoed that sentiment. “If it was a white police officer shooting a black man, he wouldn’t have been charged,” said Rob Hannah as he waited to get a haircut. “The system fails us a lot.”

Added owner A.J. Turner, “The Somali community needs to be in an uproar. I would be.”

Talk about race and perceived racial bias has lit up Somali community members’ social media accounts, animated coffee shop conversations and brought a couple of emotional impromptu community meetings in the days following the charges. Some have questioned whether Noor was treated differently from other cops who have killed in the line of duty, alleging a rush to judgment absent after other police shootings.

“A lot of the community is saying that if it’s Michael or David, he’s not going to be guilty today,” said Mahamed Cali, who runs KALY 101.7 FM, a Somali-American radio station.

After months of silence, the Somali American Police Association (SAPA) last week criticized the charges, suggesting Freeman had bowed to political pressure ahead of his re-election bid later this year. In an interview, Waheid Siraach, acting spokesman for SAPA, said the case raises legitimate questions about racial bias.

He pointed to former Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s news conference several days after the shooting in which she condemned Noor’s actions before an investigation had been completed. He also noted a cellphone video of Freeman criticizing the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for its handling of the case and telling activists in a taped conversation that to make a charging decision would be “the big present I’d like to see under the Christmas tree.”

“The aggressiveness, the ruthlessness with which Freeman went after this case, and personally Noor, it’s completely different from how they went after other cases,” Siraach said.

Privately, some Somali-American officers complained they were called in to testify before the grand jury simply because of their ethnicity. They spoke about several racially charged incidents in the department in the aftermath of Damond’s shooting, including disparaging comments about Somalis made by a white sergeant on Facebook, which were investigated last month.

Officers and community activists such as Omar Jamal also criticized Noor’s Tuesday firing, which they said sends a strong message to potential jurors. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Federation, usually an outspoken advocate of officers accused of wrongdoing, remained largely silent about the Noor matter for months.

Some in the Somali community worry about a broader backlash, noting feverish speculation in some corners of the internet and elsewhere that Noor’s religion and ethnicity motivated the shooting. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann called Noor an “affirmative-action hire by the hijab-wearing mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges,” and insinuated that Noor may have shot Damond for “cultural” reasons.

Others decried the case as a possible setback in law enforcement efforts to engage with the East African community and recruit officers from its ranks, an initiative that has received international recognition.

“A lot of young people wanted to be a police officer, but they’re rethinking it now,” said Cali, citing his own son as an example. “A lot of young people are saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be [the next] Mohamed.’ ”

Some prominent black police reform advocates are speaking out in Noor’s defense. Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist in Minneapolis, noted that 11 days before Damond was shot, on-duty New York City police officer Miosotis Familia was shot and killed as she sat in an RV police command vehicle in the Bronx. During roll calls across the country, Edwards said, officers were told to be on the lookout for situations in which they could be ambushed, to “have their weapons prepared.”

“In those tragic few seconds, officers were following their orders,” he said, adding, “Justice was not served, but I wasn’t surprised.”

Support for the charges

But the response to the charges in Twin Cities communities of color is far from uniform. For some, the bottom line is that a police officer is being held accountable in the death of an unarmed civilian. They feel the case has helped broaden the call for police and criminal justice reform — and could serve as a rallying cry for a community still reeling from the 2016 shooting death of St. Paul school cafeteria worker Philando Castile by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez was acquitted last year on manslaughter charges.

Farhio Khalif, a Somali-American women’s advocate, said she welcomed the charges against Noor as a chance to get to the bottom of what happened the night Damond was killed.

“My solidarity is with the Damond family. Justine has to be given her justice,” she said.

Khalif says that to her, Noor was simply a Minneapolis officer who shot an unarmed woman, and she voiced disappointment that much has been made in the public discourse of his Somali-American background. She said she trusts that the justice system will handle the case without regard to Noor’s race and background.

Some black community advocates also said they are heartened by the charges.

“Just because racist white folks do terrible things to black folks, we don’t have to act like them,” said Mel Reeves, one of the leaders of an unsuccessful campaign pushing Freeman to indict two officers in the Clark shooting. “I don’t support wrong. Clearly, if officer Noor shot Justine Damond, he should be punished.”

All eyes now turn to Noor’s upcoming prosecution. The proliferation of video and other factors have increased pressure on prosecutors around the country to not only charge but convict officers involved in controversial shootings, according to Justin Nix, who has studied police use of force at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Yet, convictions remain uncommon.

Much remains unknown in the Damond case, which was not captured on video because the officers’ body cameras were turned off at the critical moment. Still, Nix said there appeared to be enough evidence to support charges, regardless of the victim and officer’s race.

“If you separate race from that and you just look at those facts, this is one of those very questionable cases in which charges might be pursued,” he said.

Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.

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