Ten minutes before the June 11 civil rights community social was scheduled to begin, a small group of Somali protestors carrying posters silently walked into the room at the Brian Coyle Community Center. The protestors’ unexpected appearance demanded the attention of the 50 community members who were present to discuss Mayor Rybak’s proposed budget cut to the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department.
FULL DISCLOSURE Lolla Mohammed Nur, the author of this article, is an intern at the TC Daily Planet, and is also an intern at CAIR.
For a few minutes, all was dead and quiet in the room as people tried to digest who the protestors were and why they were present. “We don’t want CAIR”, “CAIR is a hypocrite”, and “CAIR is not for the Somali community” were some of the slogans carried on signs by the small, mostly female and elderly group of Somalis. Abdirizak Bihi was leading the protestors, and they were protesting against the Minnesota chapter of CAIR – the Council on American Islamic Relations, a non-religious, non-profit, non-political civil liberties and advocacy group.
“[The protests were] the first opposition against CAIR’s work that I’ve ever heard about,” said a dumbfounded Taneeza Islam, the civil rights director for CAIR, that evening. “I was thinking that people don’t really know what CAIR is really doing in the Somali community.”
Islam also noticed that the people holding the signs were either very old or very young. “I questioned whether they knew what the signs said or if anyone had even explained [to them] what the signs said.”
Jessica Zikri, CAIR’s communications director, also expressed disbelief. “I was surprised with the makeup of the crowd. It struck me as odd because it just didn’t seem like they really understood exactly what was going on. They seemed like they were just in on the ride.”
Five minutes after the protestors walked into the room, a group of elderly Somalis who had been seated in the audience stood up to join the protestors at the door. Together, with Bihi leading the way, they all left the room to stand outside the Brian Coyle Center adjacent to the room in which the community social was being held. They began loudly chanting phrases like “CAIR, out!”
“Well, I guess you all don’t need a Somali translator now. We can all speak English in here,” joked Yusuf Ahmed, the Somali translator for the evening, after the protestors walked out.
zAbdirizak Bihi, the protest’s organizer, is the uncle of Burhan Hassan. Hassan was one of about twenty young Somali men who left the Twin Cities to fight in Somalia and was allegedly killed there last month. Ever since news of his death in June, Bihi has been increasingly outspoken in his opposition to Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, claiming the mosque brainwashed the young Somali men and sent them to fight with Al-Shabaab in Somalia. An FBI investigation into the young men’s travel to Somalia is ongoing.
Now, Bihi is also blaming CAIR for speaking for and “siding with the mosque.” He accuses both of denying and covering up the disappearance of the Somali men. He claims that at a convention, CAIR told “the [Somali] community to shut up” when dealing with law enforcement. Bihi points to this as the reason for the silence of those who witnessed the shooting of college student Ahmednur Ali last September.
Bihi also thinks CAIR is “trying to divide and set up leaders for the Somali community.” This was his main reason for organizing the protest at the Brian Coyle Community Center. “Our campaign is to show the strength of our community. That’s why we protested. This community is too strong, they can’t divide our clans.”
Abdirizak Bihi’s brother, Omar Bihi, is on the board of the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center. Neither Omar Bihi nor the mother of Burhan Hassan has made public comment about the death of the young man or the accusations against CAIR.
CAIR says that Bihi’s claims are untrue and baseless. “We never denied that the youths were missing. I’ve never even heard anybody say that,” said Jessica Zikri, CAIR Communications Director. As for siding with the mosque, Zikri said there is no way to side with anyone right now. “I don’t know how there’s a way to side with the mosque. We’re all just as concerned with the boys as the Somali community is.”
Zikri also said that CAIR has never spoken for or represented the mosque. She said she was a speaker at an open house and community dinner hosted by the mosque in February. The open house was for neighborhood residents of all faiths and was cosponsored by CAIR, “but we didn’t answer questions for the mosque, the mosque answered their own questions,” she said.
As for the claims that CAIR is encouraging the community not to cooperate with the law enforcement, Zikri says they’re all false. “I was the one speaking at the Somali Voices Convention,” explained Zikri. “I said do cooperate with the FBI and law enforcement, but you need to know your rights to be protected. Even as a non-Somali American citizen, I’d be afraid to speak with the FBI without an attorney because I don’t have the legal background to know what my rights are.” She also clarified that CAIR does not give legal advice.
The “Know Your Rights” information sessions that CAIR has been giving to members of the Muslim community provide information about what every U.S. resident’s constitutional rights are if confronted by the law enforcement. CAIR provides information like the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney. CAIR also emphasizes that lying to an officer is a criminal offense. The need to inform Muslim Americans of their legal rights was brought to CAIR’s attention especially when the FBI began interrogating families and high school and college students following the disappearance of the Somali men.
“Our rights were granted to us by our forefathers. It would be foolish to disregard your rights to make it look like you’re being more cooperative. We’ve always said cooperate, tell the truth, but know your rights,” said Zikri.
Still, Bihi’s claims that the mosque is lying to the FBI and that CAIR is hampering the investigation are serious allegations, and Zikri acknowledges this. “If you lie [to law enforcement] that’s a felony. But we want results [in this investigation] more than anybody else. We don’t want people going to jail because they didn’t know the question or how to answer something.”
Nevertheless, Bihi views himself and his family as a victim of CAIR’s bullying. He claims that CAIR has been ignoring him and his family by not returning phone calls and not wanting dialogue. CAIR has denied both of those claims.
“CAIR understands that Bihi and his family are victims of Burhan’s death,” said Zikri. “But this is not the right way to pursue justice. It’s not going to bring Burhan back. These tragedies are being used to blame the mosque and CAIR. We’re just trying to help.”
Somali community’s press conference and rally in response to anti-CAIR protest
Bihi said his family was “so happy” when they read in the Star Tribune a day after the protest that CAIR would be willing to talk to the families of the missing Somali boys. (But then Bihi says he was disappointed when the next day, he thought CAIR responded to his protest “with the same tactics.”)
The “protest with the same tactics” was the June 13 press conference and silent rally held at the Brian Coyle Community Center in support of CAIR and its work in the Somali community. With about 50 people attending, the press conference was organized by a coalition of twenty Somali civil, religious and political organizations, including the United Somali Movement, the Somali Youth Network Council, Somali Action Alliance, and Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center.
The rally’s purpose was to explain to the public that the anti-CAIR protest two days prior did not represent the Somali community’s attitude towards CAIR. “We are here to say we are the overwhelming majority,” speaker Aman Obsiye, Vice President of the United Somali Movement, said at the press conference. “We are the voice of the community. And with our voice we are saying, we support CAIR. We love CAIR. Please continue to work with the Somali community. Continue to promote our civil rights which are actually our human rights.”
Bihi believes CAIR planned the press conference and “childishly got Somalis to protest. The reason we protested was for a dialogue with CAIR.” Zikri, however, said that is a misconception on Bihi’s part. “CAIR did not organize or cosponsor it,” she said. “[The rally] wasn’t against what Bihi was doing; it was more of the Somali community supporting what CAIR has been doing.”
Who is the voice for the Somali community?
Those who support Bihi seem to be a minority within the Somali community, but it is unclear exactly how much the Somali community is divided. “Some people think what we’re doing is wrong. They can have dissension, everybody can express their voice,” commented Bihi. “That’s not division, we’re not divided. We’re brothers and sisters. There are people who want to divide us, but we are not divided.”
Although Obsiye did not comment on whether the community is divided, he believes that Bihi’s supporters are a small voice in the larger Somali Minnesotan community. The reason the Somali community held the press conference, according to Obsiye, is because they were “fed up with two people in the media representing our community and the media using them to represent the Somali voice.”
At least two speakers at the press conference directly addressed the media and even named a local newspaper which they thought had been writing “just what two individuals say” when it comes to CAIR and the Somali community. The two individuals were not specified.
“You have these so called ‘Somali activists’ who are not activists,” said Obsiye. “To be an activist you have to be active when the media is and is not present. And these so called activists are not present when the media is not present.”
At the press conference, Obsiye claimed that the “two individuals” who organized the anti-CAIR protest “have a hidden agenda. We don’t know what the hidden agenda is, but there must be an agenda. Because if they want the kids to come back [from Somalia], there must be a better way to work with it.”
What led Obsiye to his conclusion is what he was told by a Somali observer who was present at the anti-CAIR protest. “A Somali observer of the protest said that the protestors were told that CAIR is responsible for the kids who left to Somalia,” said Obsiye. When Obsiye asked the protestors if this was true, they confirmed with him. “And I also heard a racist comment. The protestors said that CAIR is a group of Arab leaders trying to come into the Somali community and tell the Somali community what to do.”
However, Obsiye doesn’t blame them. He believes that “the protestors were told to protest and hold signs by two individuals. The people didn’t know better. They didn’t know that CAIR is just a civil rights organization. I think that they were manipulated, they didn’t know what was going on,” he asserted.
Obsiye also said he saw, greeted, and spoke with Omar Jamal at the anti-CAIR protest. Although Jamal wasn’t protesting, he was sitting near the protestors and watching, according to Obsiye. Jamal is a controversial Somali figure who has been known to very publicly accuse CAIR of promoting Islamic extremism. Bihi said he could not remember if he saw Jamal present at the protest.
Ethnicity might be an issue
Bihi did not deny making racist comments against CAIR to garner support for the protest. “That’s how we see CAIR. There are no Somalis [working for them]. We don’t see Oromos or other nationalities. All we see is Arabs. That’s the perception we have and that’s all we know, because they never work with us, but they always judge us.”
In spite of his comment, Bihi says he is not a racist. “I don’t have anything against anybody. I don’t care what race you are and what religion you are. I have something against someone who comes into my community and comes to patronize me.” He even mentioned the Jewish and GLBT communities, appreciating them for their help and hoping that he can continue his “relationship with the Minnesota community.”
Zikri said the CAIR-MN board is ethnically diverse and that there is no Arab board member, “but even if there was, so what?” she asked. Zikri agrees with Bihi that it’s important to have representation from all groups, but CAIR is not an ethnic or religious organization, she said.
“We help Muslims in the whole community. The fact that we can help the Somali community without having Somali representation on the board shows how those divisions can be erased.” However, she says CAIR has Somali and other East African volunteers. She also points out that CAIR doesn’t have any African American representation. “It’s not like we’re being exclusive. It doesn’t have to do with ethnicity or race.”
Regardless of the accusations and protests against CAIR, both CAIR and Bihi have said they would be more than willing to meet and make each party understand where the other is coming from. Zikri hopes to “bridge this gap of misunderstanding,” and she explained that CAIR is a non-profit charitable and transparent organization. “As a 501(c)(3) organization we’re not hiding our activities or our budget. Our information is available to the public. We’re willing to share all of our activities with him,” Zikri said.
There was an attempt earlier last month for dialogue initiated by an impartial individual who would like to remain anonymous. Zikri said that CAIR agreed to speak with Bihi at that time but there was no response from Bihi. In fact, there was a second anti-CAIR protest organized by Bihi just last week on Independence Day, so no one is certain if there will be dialogue any time soon.
Lolla Mohammed Nur (email@example.com) is a student at the University of Minnesota and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.
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