US: Minnesota legal community, Somali-Americans latest to unite to confront Islamophobia

Bearing the scars of having a glass mug shattered across her face, Asma Jama looked out at an audience of 200 people and again told her story: How she was attacked in a Coon Rapids restaurant by a patron who flew into a rage because she spoke a foreign language.

The attack, she said, was unlike anything she has encountered during 15 years living in Minnesota. Now she fears being targeted each time she steps outside.

“This time it’s not going to be a beer mug,” Jama said. “This time it’s going to end my life.”

Jama was one of four panelists Wednesday morning at a forum on Islamophobia, and her audience represented the latest sector to consider the issue’s hold on the state’s large Muslim-American population: Minnesota’s legal community, including former Vice President Walter Mondale.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, whose office co-sponsored the forum, announced plans for a committee that would bring together the Federal Bar Association, the North American Somali Bar Association and other professional groups to focus on Islamophobia. Solutions could range from working with victims of hate crimes to helping businesses ensure a comfortable work environment for Muslim employees.

Left unchecked, Luger said, “Islamophobia is going to destroy the social fabric of this state.”

The panel was the latest in a series of conversations between federal officials and a Somali-American community grappling with twin challenges — an ongoing investigation into young men tempted by Islamist groups overseas and residents dreading the latest sound bite from a highly divisive presidential campaign.

Wednesday’s discussion, at the Minneapolis office of Dorsey & Whitney, was one of more than a dozen such panels led by federal prosecutors around the country this month, Luger said.

Mondale told the audience that the answer to the “ugly face of hatred and bigotry” lay in Minnesota’s instincts of human decency and kindness. He later said that what many Muslim-Americans endure today resembles the trials that confronted the immigrant groups of prior generations.

“We know that our future depends on us solving this problem,” Mondale said.

Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim said he fears that recent examples of national rhetoric — including presidential candidates who called for police patrols of Muslim neighborhoods — will incite Islamophobic actions. In Minnesota, such incidents have included the attack on Jama and a local lawyer who was confronted at a Vikings game by a fan who asked if he was a refugee.

“Our country has a vast experience with horrible bigotry,” Tunheim said. “I think looking back, the more important lesson we can take from our experience … is that good people cannot let things like this happen.”

Deepinder Mayell, a Twin Cities attorney of Indian Punjabi descent who was confronted at the Vikings game, later agreed, saying the silence of other fans worsened the situation. He said he remembered thinking: “Do they agree with this person?”

Haji Yusuf, whose Unitecloud Facebook group helped influence a change in the state’s policy on personalized license plates, said the image of an anti-Muslim license plate that went viral was sent to him by a teen who wanted to get the word out.

“There are people around us — they have no name, but when it matters they speak up,” he said.

Lul Hersi, a St. Cloud mother of four, said she fears the political climate will sabotage efforts to thwart radicalism among potentially disaffected youth. “You’re pushing these children to a point where they will not come back,” she said.

Speaking after the event, FBI special agent in charge Richard Thornton likened the climate that has followed recent terror attacks in the United States, Paris and Brussels to the anti-Muslim backlash that erupted after Sept. 11, 2001.

“There shouldn’t be a cause and effect,” Thornton said. “That shouldn’t be a cause for anybody to lash out.”

Star Tribune