In Cedar-Riverside, enduring concerns over ‘ugly’ rhetoric

Councilman Abdi Warsame and other Muslim leaders reflect on the impact of Islamophobia.

Politician and Ward 6 Minneapolis City Councilmember Abdi Warsame.

Liam James Doyle

Politician and Ward 6 Minneapolis City Councilmember Abdi Warsame.

by Raj Chaduvula

In April last year, Ward 6 Minneapolis Council Member Abdi Warsame woke up to a Star Tribune opinion piece that heralded Minnesota as the “land of 10,000 terrorists.”

Written by former Mayor of St. Paul Norm Coleman, the article focused on the recruitment of young Somali men and women by radical, Islamic terrorist groups, likening Minnesota to “ground zero.”

Warsame responded in the Star Tribune a few days later, calling Coleman’s article “fear-mongering,” and spurning the stigmatization of Somali-Americans, who, he said, desperately want to be part of the American dream.

For a handful of Muslim and African-American politicians, warding off Islamophobic rhetoric has become commonplace.

Warsame, who was elected to the City Council in 2013, was the first Somali member of the council who actively practiced Islam. Since then, Warsame said he has continually found himself answering questions about radicalization and terrorism.

“No other councilman has to defend his community. … They’re not second guessed,” he said.

Since Warsame’s tenure began, Cedar-Riverside has been subject to a barrage of inquiries from the media and politicians about radicalization efforts and terrorism recruitment in the neighborhood.

Initiatives like the Department of Justice’s Countering Violent Extremism have seen backlash from Cedar-Riverside members who see the program perpetuating racist tropes about Somali-Americans.

Then, to further muddle pre-existing perceptions of the community, three Somali-American Minneapolis men were convicted for conspiring to travel to Syria and join ISIL. Six others pled guilty earlier this year in their own high-profile cases.

In the current presidential election cycle, attention has been called to myriad statements made by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — many of which have been criticized for being anti-Islamic, anti-immigration and racist. Late last year, Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigrants to the United States.

The way to react to the hateful speech is to condemn it, said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim leader elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the last 30 days, Ellison said his office received 30 pieces of hate mail, an increase from the steady stream it usually receives.

“When leaders start engaging in hateful messages, it green-lights ugly rhetoric and ugly behavior [in people],” he said.

Not all the Republicans agree with Trump, Ellison said, but when politicians drive the narrative it can exploit immigration and refugee issues.

Since he entered office, Warsame said he’s tried to bring change to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The Opportunity Center, which would promote training and skill-building programs for community members, and an infrastructure project — Samatar Crossing — are among the current initiatives that Warsame has helped spearhead in the community.

Still, Warsame said, the neighborhood’s achievements seem to be overlooked.

“Sometimes you feel like your hard work is undermined because of your skin color, because of your ethnicity [and] the faith you practice,” he said.

For Warsame, the impact of anti-Islamic rhetoric on his constituents spurs worry — especially when compounded by the media’s perpetual spotlight on topics like CVE and terrorism, he said.

“I worry about the old lady in Cedar-Riverside who wears a hijab and is discriminated [against] because she wears a hijab,” Warsame said. “I want to talk about small business or after-school programs … but people don’t want to hear about that; they want to hear about the fashionable story of the day which is terrorism and recruitment,” Warsame said.

Mohamed Jama — chair of the West Bank Community Coalition, a nonprofit community organization — who immigrated to Minnesota at the age of 8, said Cedar-Riverside is a thriving community. As an organizer, he said he’s talked with kids in the area who say they’re fearful of being stigmatized.

“You have the media trying to make this community look like it’s a terrorist harbor,” he said. “This rhetoric is isolating and marginalizing the Muslim and Somali-American [communities].”

Even with the current political landscape, Warsame said, there’s opportunity for the outside communities to learn about Muslim Americans.

“To tell our story is very important. … I tell my story through my work,” he said. “We cannot isolate ourselves, nor do we want to assimilate … but we should integrate [and] create something new and unique,” he said.

Warsame, like many other Somali-Americans, is a refugee of the Somali Civil War. His family immigrated to London and moved to Cedar-Riverside in 2006. Because of the ongoing conflict, many are unable to return to Somalia, he said, so they’ve made America home.

“When people feel that Minneapolis is theirs, they’ll defend it, and it’s their home [when] they’re not just guests. … This is the best country in the world” he said.

The only way to subdue hateful rhetoric, Warsame said, is to work hard and vote.

“The Muslim community will come out and vote heavily [this election] because it means a lot to us, this election is about our place in America,” he said.