St. Cloud Town Hall on anti-Muslim cartoons

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Farhad Mohammed and many of the roughly 500 people gathered at St. Cloud’s City Hall Tuesday evening found the official response to a series of vulgar, anti-Islamic cartoons posted around town last month woefully lacking.

“Why is there no punishment?” the St. Cloud resident asked a panel of local officials at a town hall on anti-Muslim hate sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Minnesota and many local human rights groups. “This may encourage other persons to do the same thing or more, because they feel they won’t be prosecuted.”

Mohammed’s concern, and Tuesday’s forum, arose in response to a December 8 incident in which cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed engaged in vulgar sexual acts using religious symbolism were posted on utility poles and other locations near a mosque and a Muslim-owned shop.

After members of the St. Cloud area’s Muslim community, many of whom are Somali refugees, reported the cartoons to the police, a resident of nearby Waite Park admitted putting them up, Police Chief Dennis Ballantine said. But the Benton and Stearns County Attorneys’ offices declined to file charges of obscenity or defamation, saying the man had engaged in protected free speech.

St. Cloud City Attorney Jan Petersen’s office issued administrative fines totaling $500 against the man for violating a city ordinance that prohibits posting material on public fixtures, after deciding charges of disorderly conduct and criminal harassment did not apply.
Posting the cartoons represented “hate spewed at an entire population,” said Zahra Aljabri, Civil Rights coordinator for CAIR-MN. She compared it to the 2008 Blaine arson of a Muslim-run store and other acts targeting Muslims in Minnesota and said the overall effect is to create a climate of fear.

“This is a pattern of things that are happening,” she said. “They may seem small, but when you put them together, it leads to bigotry.”

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said he found the cartoons deeply offensive and believed, along with Ballantine, that the county attorneys should have filed obscenity charges. No representatives from the offices of Benton County Attorney Robert Raupp or Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall were present at Tuesday’s meeting.

Getting to know neighbors and reaching out to people of different backgrounds are the best ways to combat these incidents, Kleis said.

But several people who spoke Tuesday criticized Kleis’s administration for not filling an empty city Human Rights Director position last year due to budget cuts and said the city is not doing enough to ensure the safety of Muslims and other minorities.

“I’ve been here for four years, and I’m scared of this city,” said Amer Laam, a St. Cloud State University student from Rochester. “What are you going to do to protect all citizens of St. Cloud?”

Other bias-motivated incidents in St. Cloud have grabbed headlines in the recent past. In 2007, incidents of vandalism featuring Nazi swastikas took place on the campus of St. Cloud State University. Earlier in the decade, fires were lit in the dumpsters of a mosque and a Muslim-owned business. And many Muslim residents said Tuesday that prejudice toward them is an everyday fact of life.

St. Cloud in 2007 won the approval of, but not funding from, Gov. Tim Pawlenty to create a regional office of the state’s Department of Human Rights that could enforce state laws and take a more active approach to discrimination in the area. But Kleis, a former Republican state lawmaker and friend of Pawlenty’s, was unable to convince the leaders of neighboring communities to devote scarce property tax dollars to funding the state office at the same time Pawlenty was proposing cuts in state aid to cities.

Kleis noted Tuesday that the city still receives complaints of discrimination and forwards them on to the Human Rights Department in St. Paul, and that a complaint filed with it led to the investigation of the cartoons in question.