MINNEAPOLIS – Cars honk and passerby raise their fists in salute as more than 250 people protest Islamophobia, racism, and US wars abroad in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis. The crowd marches amid chants of “No more wars! No more fear! Our Muslim friends are welcome here!”, holding signs that read “Stop the war on Muslims at home and abroad” and “No U.S. military intervention in Syria”. The march was sponsored by the Minnesota Anti-War Committee and Minnesotans Against Islamophobia.
Minnesota is home to more than 30,000 Somali immigrants, around ⅓ of the total number living in the United States. The majority live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. They are targeted by racism and xenophobia, as well as Islamophobia.
Burhan Mohumad grew up in the West Bank neighborhood and decided to get involved with the community both by reading and having to deal with the racism and poverty that afflicts his community. He wears black sunglasses, cap and orange vest and tells me about life in the Twin Cities while different people speak about the intersection of racism, Islamophobia and US wars abroad on the platform set up nearby. “You start to realize that, you know, you’re not poor by the lack of hard work, you’re not poor because you’re irresponsible. So once I became conscious of that, that’s when I wanted to get involved.”
“I’m a first generation immigrant that grew up here. Muslim and black, obviously. You do become really cautious. You start to look over your shoulder.”
He may have good reason to do so. Minneapolis is one of the three major cities implementing “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE), a federal program that locally targets Somali-Americans in the Twin Cities area.
When I reviewed terrorist attacks in the United States since the 1980s, until a stabbing possibly inspired by Islamic State in St. Cloud that occurred the night after this march, I could not find one that was committed by a person of Somali descent. However, since the implementation of the CVE program in 2014, at least ten young Somali men have been arrested after being entrapped by FBI informants.
Three of them were convicted by an all-white jury in Minneapolis in June of this year, while five pled guilty before their trials. Their sentencing will be in November. Some of them face life imprisonment.
The rally and march today are meant to raise awareness of Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia both in the West Bank neighborhood and more generally throughout Minneapolis.
“CVE is essentially a program that says: how can we stop people from being radicalized, how do we stop them from leaving the country,” Burhan explains. “Basically, to sum it up, to say that Muslims are a problem. You don’t target a whole population of people and not see them as a problem.”
“You’re saying that we’re all potential terrorists, potential extremists.”
The Minnesota Anti-War Committee says that the CVE program “criminalizes and spies on the Somali community in Minnesota and is a classic divide and conquer tactic using “trusted” individuals and organizations; infiltrators posing as friends, teachers in schools, and social service organizations.”
As a first-generation immigrant to the United States, Burhan finds the disconnect between what the US says and what it does to be frustrating.
“It’s concerning because you come to this country believing in these freedoms and believing in those civil liberties, and when you come here you have a program like CVE targeting you because you’re Muslim and have this [Somali] background. It is racist. It is xenophobic. It’s anti-Muslim, it’s anti-Black.”
Somali-Canadian rapper K’Naan is developing a TV series with HBO about “jihadi recruitment” set in Minneapolis. The executive director of the series will be Kathryn Bigelow, who directed the pro-US films “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker”, one about the fictional CIA hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the other praising soldiers who occupied Iraq. The series will be called “The Recruiter”.
Members of the Somali community and their supporters turned out to protest K’Naan when he visited the Twin Cities area last week, and were met with pepper spray and arrests from the police. While K’Naan met with protesters after to say that the show would not demonize the Somali community, many remain unconvinced as long as Bigelow is attached the the project.
“Obviously the relationship that Bigelow has to the show, the show being on HBO, him being such an inexperienced person in the industry, and the fact that he’s black and the fact that he’s Muslim, I don’t think they will give him the full range,” says Burhan. “From his own mouth he says he has full control — he’s the creator, he’s the writer, he’s the director, he’s the producer. And it’s hard for me to believe that.”
The crowd begins to march through the neighborhood, receiving supporting honks and stopping traffic. They end up in front of the Republican Party’s office on Franklin Avenue, chanting: “No Trump! No KKK! No racist USA!”
Does Burhan think anything will get better for Muslims in this country after the presidential election in November?
“To be honest with you, I think that it won’t,” he says. “You have Hillary — who has a proven record, has a proven history of her supporting policies and her saying very devastating and very problematic statements against people of color.”
Her policies at the State Department didn’t bring a lot of hope to Muslims abroad or at home, he says.
“You have Trump, who has literally spilled out the bad. He’s literally spilled out all his bad guts about his feelings about Muslims and about immigrants and where he sees this country headed.”
“I am terrified. As a black person, as a Muslim, I’m terrified. Because now, it’s like — what do you do? How do you protect yourself? How do you involve yourself in this country’s electoral process or in this democracy to raise your voice?”
“Honestly, come November, I’m gonna pray hard. I’m a Muslim and I’m a person of faith and so I’ll just pray that the people of this country, that their consciousness is raised.”
Does he think that this system will deliver justice to vulnerable people in the United States?
“Me being exposed to the literature I’ve been exposed to, I think a socialist system, something that really includes the whole body of the people… I think that’s the system that would help us. But capitalism? You know Trump’s a capitalist, Hillary is a capitalist.”
“People need to be aware of what’s going on in our country. And really protect the vulnerable.”
Despite the steep incline of the fight ahead, Burhan finds hope in the turnout for the march today, which he says is larger than the previous rallies against Islamophobia in Minneapolis.
“Today’s rally, today’s march… this is why I sort of breathe easy. Because I see there’s a collection of people that honestly do care about this country, and do care about the future of this country. They care about the world, and they care about humanity. This is what I really take comfort in.”