Who are the gatekeepers of the Somali community?


by Farheen Hakeem | June 19, 2009 • Omar Jamal, Executive Director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, is the go-to guy for media coverage of Somalis in Minnesota. But does he really speak for Minnesota’s Somali community?

The Soapbox blog offers a space for local opinion on local, state, national and world issues, including elections.

Last week, Jamal participated in a protest accusing Minnesota’s only Muslim civil rights organization, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) of impeding an investigation into the missing Somali youth. The protest was organized by Abdirizak Bihi, Jamal’s colleague and an uncle of Burhan Hassan, one of the missing Somali young men.

I, unfortunately, know Bihi all too well. When I ran for mayor of Minneapolis, I caught Bihi, who was working for McLaughlin’s campaign, running around the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood telling Somalis not to vote for me because “she is a lesbian.” This didn’t damage my campaign because I actually received more votes. It did however completely kill my romantic life (don’t get me started). I know who I am so I could care less of others’ opinion of my sexuality, but I was appalled that Bihi would use hate toward the GLBT community to gain political power.

Not surprisingly, Bihi’s irresponsible tactics against the Somali community have also found their way into the media. In a WCCO interview, Bihi said, “They [Abuubakar Islamic Center] curse us [Burhan’s family]. Call us infidels, because simply we spoke up for our son…Now we can say yes, that they do have something to do with it because they’re always acting out in a sinister way.”

The FBI hasn’t indicted anyone in the disappearance of the missing men, yet Bihi offered conjecture and speculation that the mosque is involved. He also accused the mosque of a hit job on his nephew simply because he feels they are “always acting out in a sinister way.” The question is: where are the facts?

Bihi is, according to Somali community leaders that I know, not representing their views. The Somali community’s lack of engagement with the media allows Jamal and Bihi to run amok spewing allegations that only harm the Somali community. These self-proclaimed leaders cannot differentiate feelings and conjecture from facts. Their accusations are inconsistent and personal.

Jamal and Bihi alleged that CAIR-MN is ‘impeding the FBI’s investigation’ by informing the Somali community of their right to remain silent and have an attorney present when questioned by federal law enforcement. This attempt to intimidate and shame the Somalis into giving up their constitutional rights is atrocious. Having an attorney present to avoid unfair prosecution is reasonable and responsible behavior, especially for individuals who already fear law enforcement due to negative experiences they’ve had in their homeland.

According to a February 2009 Minnesota Public Radio story, “Rights groups say Somalis being stopped, questioned,” a CAIR-MN representative told the story of a Somali man stopped by agents while walking and invited into a car for questioning: “There was one agent sitting in the front seat and another agent in the back seat….he was bombarded with questions. He just answered “no” to everything. He was just so scared.”

Lying to federal law officials, even if you’re scared, is a felony. This man needed to invoke his right to remain silent and have an attorney present. It would ensure him to understand his rights, and to be comfortable to answer the questions truthfully. This process builds trust and nurtures Somalis to engage the greater community instead of hiding in fear. No one should be ashamed or ostracized for asking for an attorney, especially when it’s their constitutional right.

According to CAIR-MN’s publication, Know Your Rights and Responsibilities as an American Muslim :

“American Muslims strongly support law enforcement and the protection of our national security…..If you know of any criminal activity taking place in your community, it is both your religious and civic duty to immediately report such activity to local and federal law enforcement agencies.”

CAIR-MN has been offering trainings in the Somali community long before the Somali youth disappeared. The trainings are offered by both Muslim and non-Muslim attorneys (including law professors). The information CAIR-MN is sharing with the community is no different than the information offered by the ACLU

Bihi and Jamal definitely have a right to speak for themselves, but speaking for the thousands of Somalis in Minnesota will warrant questioning of their intent, credibility and integrity. They must be held accountable to their statements. The protest against the civil rights group received media coverage. The Star Tribune’s headline read, “Somalis take to the street to protest group’s actions.” Did the protest really represent the Somali community?

According to a press conference the following Saturday, organized by over a dozen local Somali organizations, it did not. The Somali organization leaders asserted that the vast majority of the individuals protesting last week were the elderly with limited English skills. When approached by Somali leaders afterwards, they stated that they were told to protest against an “anti-Somali group.” When asked, most did not know the name of that group they were protesting.

At the press conference, Somali leaders voiced support of CAIR-MN. Somali Community Link Radio Host Zuhur Ahmed said, “CAIR is always available to help Muslims and Somalis with legal, immigration and job issues, and they don’t show up only when the media is around like some others who call themselves activists.”

United Somali Movement Vice President Aman Obsiye said, “All [CAIR] is saying is that Somali-Americans are equal to all other Americans. We have the same civil rights as other Americans have…These attacks on CAIR are not from the Somali community.”

Many Somalis turn to CAIR-MN for help and these false accusations won’t stop CAIR from getting the job done. The real victims in the story are the families that lost their sons. If they are trying to get answers about their missing youth, they’ll need better spokespeople than Jamal and Bihi, who have absolutely no credibility with people that can actually help them.

Support people-powered non-profit journalism! Volunteer, contribute news, or become a member to keep the Daily Planet in orbit.