Despite the program’s innocuous title, the groups say the Thursday seminar — whose targeted audience includes peace officers — appears to have an “anti-Muslim and anti-Somali bias.” The organizations, including the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have emailed law enforcement agencies warning them about their concerns.
The event is not the brainchild of Somalis, but that of Bob Fletcher, Ramsey County’s controversial former sheriff. Fletcher, now a watch commander for St. Paul police, recently founded the Center for Somalia History Studies. He tells the Pioneer Press he wants people to wait for the event to take place before they pass judgment.
His critics don’t like the fact that Fletcher mentions religion at all when he describes al-Shabab, the Somali group with links to al-Qaida, as an “Islamic extremist terrorism organization.”
The letter writers protest: “The Muslim community rejects this biased labeling of a religion practiced by over 1.4 billion people worldwide.”
Clearly, Muslim Americans are grappling with how to talk about extremism, preferring to disassociate Islam from terrorists who they believe have hijacked their faith. Is it wrong to call a terrorist a “hard-line Islamist” or a “Muslim extremist” if he is committing atrocities in the name of his religion? There are some Muslims who even object to the word “radicalization” because it implies that the problem is rooted in the religion.
But that’s not the only reason Fletcher’s new initiative is drawing criticism. He’s brought on two well-known but divisive Somali-American activists to help lead the program — Omar Jamal and Abdirizak Bihi. In the letter CAIR, mosques, and other groups have emailed to law enforcement agencies, Muslim leaders say the “the presenters’ credentials are highly questionable.”
Fletcher is charging people $150 per person to take part in the all-day session.
The letter goes on:
The vast majority of the Somali population in Minnesota views Omar Jamal and Abdirazak Bihi as unrepresentative of their community and unqualified to speak on the topics outlined in the upcoming presentation. Neither have any academic or practical experience relevant to the topics to be presented.
Furthermore, Mr. Jamal is highly controversial and a convicted felon. Mr. Jamal has been convicted of lying to immigration officials. As the former Executive Director of SJAC, he acknowledged he did not file proper IRS documentation for his organization, yet boasts of having raised $80,000 in funds one year. He was the only paid staff.
No matter your thoughts on Jamal, Bihi, or Fletcher, it should be known that they’re not the only ones who are willing to educate the rest of us about Somali culture.
Several young leaders who have stepped up to lead community conversations on issues of radicalization and the generation gap were featured in my story today. Check it out here.