Winnie Okafor went to Tawfiq Islamic Center in north Minneapolis on Friday stumping for yes votes for the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The Rev. Grant Stevensen was at the opposition headquarters, working with young Muslim staffers to get out the no vote.
As Minnesota's Muslim population grows, both sides of the marriage amendment debate are vying to tap their growing activism and win over an estimated 50,000 potential voters.
The outreach is a dramatic departure from campaigns run in other states and suggests the groups expect the Nov. 6 vote to be very close, scholars say.
John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who studies politics and religion, says Minnesota is the first state he's aware of -- out of 31 that have voted -- where groups both for and against the proposed marriage amendment are assertively courting Muslims.
"Muslims are becoming more and more active," Green said. "They're on people's radar screens as folks that might vote, that might be persuaded. That might be willing to listen to arguments."
At the Muslim worship center at the Somali Mall in south Minneapolis, men and women signed petitions pledging to vote for the amendment. The mothers among the worshippers tried to quiet their young children with snacks while they listened to Okafor.
As a community relations coordinator for Minnesota for Marriage, the main group campaigning for the amendment, Okafor said she has attended mosque prayer services in the Twin Cities area like the one at the Somali Mall to encourage Muslims to vote for the amendment.
"We're getting good support from them ... both from the members of these mosques and also the imams," she said. "We're getting people signing our pledge forms. It's a big deal, because you're getting the voter to think ahead to what they're going to do in November.
"I think a lot of them are really sensitive to ... what becomes of the way we can raise our children when marriage is defined contrary to something our faith holds so dear."
Speaking for the other side, Stevensen, faith director at Minnesotans United For All Families, says he doesn't expect Muslims to vote as a bloc on the question. Muslims in Minnesota are diverse, coming from many different countries and ethnic backgrounds, and some are more religiously observant than others, he said.
Young Muslims are working for the campaign, both as paid staff and volunteers.
Nearly every weekend this summer, Muslims participated in door-to-door canvassing and were active in getting out the Vote No message at events like Rondo Days in St. Paul, said Kate Brickman, a spokeswoman for Minnesotans United.
Brickman's group is reaching out to Muslim imams and other religious leaders and encouraging them to hold conversations about the amendment.
What Muslims are saying
Some Twin Cities area imams have shown their support for the amendment at mosques and other venues. At least one has publicly come out against it. Perhaps the state's highest-profile Muslim, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison -- the first Muslim elected to Congress -- is a vocal opponent of the amendment.
Like conservative-minded Catholics, evangelicals and Orthodox Jews, traditional Muslims believe homosexuality is a sin. But like other Americans, U.S. Muslims appear deeply divided over gay marriage, with 39 percent saying homosexuality should be accepted by society and 45 percent saying it should be discouraged, according to a 2011 report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Faraz Ahmad, the imam at the Muslim Community Center in Bloomington, said he's never explicitly told worshippers how they should vote. But he has made his support for the amendment clear at the mosque and at the Legislature, where he spoke in favor of putting the question on the ballot.
"Our stance is marriage is, and it should be, defined as a contract between ... a male and a female," Ahmad said. "These things should be intact .... preserved and protected. That will benefit society more."
In contrast, Makram El-Amin, an imam at the Masjid An-Nur mosque in north Minneapolis where Ellison worships, joined a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi to speak out against the amendment at an event in June.
El-Amin says he is voting against the amendment because same-sex marriage is already illegal in Minnesota and the amendment would be "overkill."
But that's not the same as endorsing same-sex marriage, he said.
"I think it's a private matter, in terms of marriage in general," El-Amin said. "My position was nuanced. In Islam, we're not proponents of same-sex marriage," he said. "That's something from our faith tradition we uphold, that institution [marriage] in that form."
Ellison also says people don't necessarily have to support same-sex marriage to vote against the amendment.
"We're basically carving discrimination into the constitution," Ellison said. "The constitution ... ought to grant and confer rights, not take them away. I think anyone's attitude about homosexuality is irrelevant. At the end of the day, it's about fundamental liberty, not whether you agree with this or not."
An awkward alliance
Lori Saroya, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Muslims are still concerned with discrimination at work, harassment at schools and other civil rights issues, but are branching out politically as their numbers grow. There are 3 million to 5 million Muslims in the United States. About 150,000 live in Minnesota, many of them immigrants from Africa and Asia. Upwards of 50,000 are registered voters in Minnesota, Muslim leaders estimate.
Many Muslims may agree with conservative groups on gay marriage, she said, but those same groups oppose them on other issues.
"I think the majority of Muslims would say the Qu'ran does prohibit gay marriage," Saroya said. "I think the problem they're facing is if they go out and support the amendment, then they're aligning themselves with the same people that ... have engaged in some of these anti-Muslim activities.
"The anti-sharia bill is a good example," she said, referring to a measure introduced in the Republican-controlled Legislature that many Muslim leaders deemed discriminatory. "It seems like it's some of the same people behind that effort that are part of this effort [marriage amendment]. So I think it's a matter of, 'Do we want to align ourselves with these people?'"
The fact that Muslims are being courted on an issue like this, Green said, "is evidence Muslims have become more accepted, more mainstream.
"Part of it is they're growing, they're becoming more numerous. Part of it is there's been some time between now and 9/11, which was a very difficult time for American Muslims.
"We're kind of moving away from that."
Rose French • 612-673-4352