Features

Twin visions

Islam | Moderates and radicals wrestle for the soul of Islam in Minneapolis-St. Paul and beyond

Issue: "Rich man, poor man," May 5, 2007

First: Last fall Muslim cab drivers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport refused service to alcohol-toting passengers. A national debate ensued: Should civil-rights laws protect such religious convictions? Or was this merely a political stunt to test the elasticity of American pluralism?

Second: In November six imams generated a stir at the same airport, reportedly praying loudly in the gate area, angrily discussing U.S. foreign policy as they boarded a plane, and requesting seatbelt extensions that witnesses feared might be used as weapons. Authorities detained the Muslim clerics for questioning and released them several hours later.

Third: Recently, Muslim cashiers at Minneapolis-area Target stores refused to scan pork products, citing Quranic teaching that pigs are unclean. Target accommodated its employees with new positions away from the checkout lines.

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Three controversies, no coincidence: Minnesota is home to roughly 150,000 Muslims, most of whom live in the greater Twin Cities area. Rep. Keith Ellison, who became the nation's first Muslim congressman earlier this year, has characterized the problems in his district as normal growing pains typical of any first-generation immigrant population.

But several moderate voices within the Muslim community believe the 1-2-3 push is part of a larger campaign: Minneapolis, they suggest, is just one front in a national movement to advance Shariah (Quran-based) law under cover of civil-rights protections.

Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, has repeatedly told WORLD that national organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim American Society (MAS) are tricking the region's large number of Somali Muslims into high-profile controversies to drive a Middle-Eastern political agenda. "CAIR and MAS are radicalizing the community," he said. "They're not interested in protecting civil liberties. They're interested in a broader political mission to create a world of Muslims versus Christians."

Evidence of an agenda beyond civil-rights protection has surfaced on several university campuses throughout the country. Syracuse now recognizes the end of Ramadan as an official holiday, shutting down the entire campus. At Georgetown, Muslim women can opt out of the dorm living required for other freshmen and choose not just single-sex housing but special accommodations termed "Muslim Interest Living Communities," which aim "to establish an Islamic living environment for those who wish to increase and strengthen their faith."

Those are private universities, but reports are arising of taxpayer-funded colleges creating permanent Muslim prayer rooms in school buildings at the same time that they ban recognition of Christianity. Minneapolis Community and Technical College, for example, plans to install a ritual washing basin for Muslim students in a public restroom, but in December instructed employees not to put up any signs recognizing Christmas. Such accommodations for Shariah law are largely the result of the Muslim Accommodations Task Force (MATF), a Washington D.C.-based group that aims, according to its website, to make campuses more "Muslim-friendly."

In Minneapolis, Jamal worries that CAIR and MAS have made considerable headway convincing Minnesota's Somali community that fighting for such advancements in "civil rights" is central to maintaining a Muslim identity. Jamal is publishing informational materials and speaking regularly at various local colleges in an effort to turn the tide.

He says objections to transporting alcohol or scanning pork products "have nothing to do with religion." If they did, he asks, why haven't Muslim cab drivers or cashiers in other cities raised such concerns? He believes Middle-Eastern Muslims have identified Somalis in the Twin Cities-a group of mostly unassimilated immigrants eager to prove their faithfulness and build community in a new country-as uniquely vulnerable to manipulation by religious fatwa.

In the case of the cab drivers, the MAS-issued fatwa against transporting alcohol nearly succeeded in altering the Metropolitan Airport Commission's rule book. A plan to provide color-coded top lights on all taxis so prospective passengers could identify alcohol-friendly cars would have represented a dramatic step in government accommodation of Shariah law.

But public outcry prevented enactment, and airport officials announced this month that, beginning May 11, cabbies refusing to transport alcohol will receive a 30-day suspension on the first offense and a two-year revocation of their license on the second. Lawyers representing the taxi drivers are threatening to challenge that crackdown in court.

The "flying imams" have turned to the legal system also, filing suit against airport officials, US Airways employees, and unnamed airline passengers for the alleged embarrassment, inconvenience, and mental anguish they suffered when removed from their scheduled flight to Phoenix, Ariz. The imams were returning home from Minneapolis after attending a conference for the North American Imams Federation, an event at which Rep. Ellison spoke.

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