Minnesota Muslims respond to King hearings

Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison and Minneapolis resident Abdirizak Bihi were among the witnesses who testified March 10 in the first day of Republican Representative Peter King's Washington hearings. King's focus is what he calls the radicalization of Muslims in America. The hearing on "Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response" has for weeks been criticized as an indictment of all Muslim Americans.

In what was the most memorable moment of the morning, Rep Ellison broke down in tears as he eulogized a Muslim American first responder who was killed on September 11 2001. Ellison, who has been outspoken about King's focus on Muslims, said, "This committee's approach to this particular subject, I believe, is contrary to the best of American values and threatens American security, or could potentially."

With only one law enforcement officer, Sheriff Lee Baca of Los Angeles, testifying as an expert, the evidence about "radicalization" was mostly anecdotal. Rep King charges that Muslim Americans do not cooperate with law enforcement in efforts to curb terrorism. In sharp contrast, Sheriff Baca said:

The Muslim Community in Los Angeles is an active participant in the securing of our Homeland. Whether as new immigrants or multi-generational citizens, the vast majority of Muslim community members within my jurisdiction is fiercely proud of their American identity and display their patriotism on a daily basis. When I made critical outreach to the community after 9/11, I was overwhelmed by the number of Muslims who, while under threat from misinformed sources, were ready and willing to connect with law enforcement to help keep the peace.

 The Minnesota Somali missing boys
According to the FBI, between 2007 and 2009, approximately 20 young Somalis left Minneapolis for Somalia where they trained with al-Shabaab, an insurgent group whose goal, at the time, was to fight what it considered an illegal occupation of Somalia by Ethiopia, Somalia's transitional government and African Union soldiers. It is important to make this distinction to show that what moved the young Somali Minnesotans to Somalia was not Islam, but what they perceived was protecting their country of origin from an Ethiopian invasion and a transitional government that sanctioned that occupation. [Justice Department announces terror charges unsealed in Minnesota against 8 defendants]

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In his testimony, Bihi complained that local civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) and other Muslim leaders in Minnesota did not support him or the families of the twenty-odd missing Somali men.  

"They threatened me, intimidated me and not only me, but also the families," Bihi testified referring to local mosque leaders who has maintained over the years indoctrinating young Muslim men. MPR's Laura Yuen reports that local imams have denied that they threatened Bihi, and think that the renewed attack is destructive to the community:

"It looks like a political move because right now, things are slowly recovering," said Abdisalam Adam, a leader of the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Minneapolis. "To replay the whole story again without any reason for it, I'm really at a loss."

At a gathering of Minnesota Muslims to watch the hearings, Lori Saroya, the president of CAIR-MN-Mn, says that her organization was never contacted by Bihi or any of the families of the missing boys. "We sympathise with him for his loss, but we are not an investigative body. Our responsibilities are to empower the Muslim community."

Other people in the group, which gathered in Minneapolis on March 10, also criticized the King hearings.

Hashi Shafi, the president of the Minnesota-based Somali Action Alliance says, "we are not denying that violent Muslims exist, but that Muslims should not be singled out for the actions of a few." Shafi went on to say that as a Muslim he denounces violence of any kind and is open to work with law enforcement should the need arise.

In 2009, we reported on efforts by the FBI, CAIR-MN and leadership in the Minneapolis Somali community in developing relationships with law enforcement. Saroya is convinced that efforts by her organization were instrumental in getting members of the Somali community to interact with the FBI. "We empowered the community by urging them to have a lawyer present when speaking to the FBI. We wanted them to talk to law enforcement, but also know that their civil liberties need to be protected."

Zuhur Ahmed, a host of a popular Somali show on KFAI radio, agrees with Saroya. "CAIR-MN told members of the community to tell the truth. But always in the presence of a lawyer." She also says that the community was in shock and wanted to know what had happened to their families and allegations by Bihi that the families were shunned by the Muslim community are baseless.

On her show, Ahmed hosted the FBI on several occasions allowing them a chance to interact with Somalis when investigating the case of the missing men. Ahmed said, "Most of the people that the FBI wanted questioned were new to the country and did not even speak English so they needed to know their rights." She said she appreciated CAIR-MN's efforts to educate the community on their civil liberties.

Ahmed who lives across the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis wondered, "why are we focusing on a sample of twenty when thousands of ordinary Muslims who have expressed no violence attend this mosque? Noone is denying that the young men were not radicalized, but finger pointing and blaming the mosque is not the solution to solving acts of terror." Investigations by the FBI and court documents have shown no evidence that the mosque is responsible for the disappearance of the young men.

Claims by Rep King that American Muslims do not cooperate with law enforcement are disproved by a report released in February by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security which revealed that "tips from the Muslim American community provided the source of information that led to a terrorist plot being thwarted in 48 of 120 cases involving Muslim Americans."

In the past, Rep King has called into question the loyalty of Muslim Americans:

"When a war begins, we're all Americans. But in this case, this is not the situation. And whether it's pressure, whether it's cultural tradition, whatever, the fact is the Muslim community does not cooperate anywhere near to the extent that it should. The irony is that we're living in two different worlds."


Mohamed Zafar, a former U.S. marine who lives with his family in the Twin Cities, was deeply offended by Rep King's statement, "I have fought for this country," Zafar said, "but actions like his reinstate fear and prejudice reinforcing stereotypes that make me fear for my safety."

Zafar, who was born in the United States to Pakistani American parents, said he is saddened when people with power use their pulpit to divide communities. "Radicalization has nothing to do with religion. One only has to look at the rising threats to President Obama to see that there will always be fringe elements in society."

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    Nekessa's picture
    Nekessa Opoti

    (Julia) Nekessa Opoti is a Minneapolis based journalist.