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Minnesota Republicans fight among themselves about Islam

Minnesota Republicans fight among themselves about Islam

Abdi Mohamed is a Republican Trump voter with a red “Make America Great Again” hat to prove it, and he is a practicing Muslim.

Born in a Kenyan refugee camp, he now considers himself an American patriot: “It’s a beacon the world can look toward as a shining example,” said Mohamed, who caucused with Republicans in February and wants to help the party reach more Muslim-American voters.

The response from a small but vocal group of party activists, candidates and elected officials: No thanks.

Phillip Parrish is a GOP candidate for governor who scored a surprising third-place finish in the February GOP caucus straw poll — despite not having any money or conventional campaign organization — on the strength of urgent warnings about Muslims overrunning Minnesota.

Asked if America’s constitutional democracy and Islam are compatible, Parrish said, “No, absolutely not.”

Parrish and Republican elected officials like state Reps. Cindy Pugh and Kathy Lohmer are speaking to the strongly held beliefs of a slice of the party. But the charged rhetoric — like a Facebook item that both Pugh and Lohmer posted warning Republicans about Muslim-Americans “infiltrating” their caucuses — threatens to further alienate Muslim-Americans, a fast growing demographic that is already trending DFL.

Perhaps even more threatening to the party’s electoral prospects, the message that Muslims are not welcome in Minnesota also risks alienating non-Muslims, especially young voters and the kinds of educated suburbanites whose social views have grown increasingly tolerant in recent years. That’s evidenced by the rapid changes on social issues like same-sex marriage and their ambivalence toward President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

In an election year featuring a wide open governor’s race, two U.S. Senate elections and four U.S. House contests that could determine who controls Congress, party leaders are not eager for a divisive debate about Islam.

“The Republican Party is an open, welcoming and inclusive party,” said state GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who was adopted by her parents from South Korea and has tried to emphasize an optimistic, forward-looking message. “We want to welcome new people who share our values and are energized to elect Republicans.”

The message conveyed to Republicans on caucus night, however, was much more mixed.

Any caucus attendee can offer a resolution, and one that appeared at some caucus sites called on the party to “minimize and eliminate the influence of Islam within the Republican Party” and prohibiting any Islamic leader from giving the invocation at a party convention or event.

In a Facebook comment, Pugh, a Chanhassen Republican elected to the House in 2012, celebrated the resolution and others dealing with Muslim-Americans: “GOOD NEWS! All four, rock-solid resolutions introduced in my precinct caucus passed ‘with flying colors’! … almost unanimous. Caucus attendees were SO supportive & appreciative of these well-written resolutions. GREAT JOB! {thank you!}”

Pugh declined an interview request, as did Lohmer, a Stillwater Republican elected in 2010.

The resolutions will be taken up at the GOP state convention only if they are passed at congressional district conventions in the spring.

One resolution, written by activist Jeffrey Baumann, states that “Islam eschews man-made law such as the Constitution of the United States.” It continues: “Muslim leaders, religious or otherwise, must definitionally be advocates of Islamic law and opponents of man-made Constitutional law.”

In an interview, Baumann said that “when Muslims become sufficiently numerous, they begin to assert political force.” The result, he said, is a “crisis that could take many forms. It could involve warfare and bloodshed and death.”

In a letter distributed to caucusgoers, Parrish accused refugees — without naming them directly — of “extortion, exploitation and manipulation” while calling them “violent, abusive and ill-intended.”

In an interview, Parrish said he has gained expertise through military operations abroad.

“We’ve had hundreds of honor killings in Minnesota,” Parrish said, referring to a murder, usually of a woman, who has brought dishonor to a family. Such killings are usually associated with Islamic regions of the world.

Chuck Laszewski, a spokesman for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, called the claim “poppycock.”

There were 100 homicides total in all of Minnesota in 2016.

Setting aside Parrish’s claim, the spate of violence by perpetrators claiming they were acting in the name of Islam has had a transformative effect on the politics of some Minnesotans.

During a rally at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport before his election, Trump castigated the refugee resettlement program to the approval of the huge crowd and called the Somali resettlement a “disaster.”

Minnesota has in recent years seen two mall knife attacks in which the assailants said they were acting on behalf of Islam. A woman who is alleged to have lit fires at St. Catherine University in February also stands accused of trying to join Al-Qaida. Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim said recently there had been a total of 15 Al-Shabab and 15 ISIS-related prosecutions, the highest number of terrorism-related cases of any district in the nation.

Minnesota’s demographics have also undergone significant change: The state’s foreign-born population has risen rapidly in the past two decades, with about one in 12 born outside the United States, including 50,000 from Somalia and Ethiopia.

Natana J. DeLong-Bas, a scholar of Islam at Boston College and co-author of the new book “Shariah: What Everyone Needs to Know,” said there’s considerable confusion and misinformation about Islam. The word sharia, for instance, while often portrayed as Islamic law, actually means “broad values or objectives” rather than laws, she said.

“These values and objectives are protection of life, property, family, religion, intellect and the environment, pursuit of the common good, collective security, fair practice in the marketplace, and the provision of justice,” Delong-Bas said. Islamic law, on the other hand, is the subject of human rather than divine reasoning, and therefore subject to change, she said.

Delong-Bas rejected the notion that a Muslim cannot be an American: “Following sharia is perfectly compatible with upholding and defending the U.S. Constitution, as any Muslim who has ever taken the oath of office or served in the military has shown through example.”

Faisal Deri, a Muslim Republican who owns a risk management consulting firm and lives in Edina, said the entire discussion is a sideshow.

“Every party has some sort of fringe element that has certain views that do not work for all. This party is a big tent,” he said, nodding to a metaphor famously used by President Ronald Reagan. “Are the people in the tent going to agree on everything? That’s impossible.”

On the issues that matter, Deri said, the Republican Party is with him: support for small business, lower taxes and less regulation.

Mohamed, the young man with the MAGA hat, said he won’t be deterred by those in the party who don’t want him.

“I became a delegate almost out of spite,” he said of the recent caucus, where he was elected to be a delegate at the Senate district convention.

“To infringe on my rights? That’s the real threat.”

J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042

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