A “Muslim Day at the Capitol” event in St. Paul took a fresh turn Wednesday when Minnesota GOP Chairman Keith Downey took the stage to address controversial remarks about Muslims by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.

He said that while any proposal from presidential candidates to explain their approach to terrorism must not violate people’s freedom of religion, it’s also important not to squelch debate by violating candidates’ right to free speech.

This year’s annual Muslim event follows deadly attacks in Brussels by Islamic terrorist group ISIS and calls from Trump and Republican rival Ted Cruz for closer scrutiny of Muslims to protect the country from dangerous extremists. Last month, Gov. Mark Dayton and other business and political leaders placed ads calling prejudice against Muslims “un-Minnesotan.” No current Republican officeholders signed the ad.

The GOP chairman, who spoke at the event for the first time, quoted extensively from letters he exchanged with Asad Zaman, the executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota and an organizer of the discussion. Downey told the audience that three-quarters of Americans don’t trust the government to protect them from a terrorist attack “and the political debate occurring in this context unfortunately is severely hampered by a lack of knowledge about Islam and the Muslim community in America.”

Noting that his organization renounced Trump’s proposals on Muslims, Downey added that “there should also be an equally informed … affirmation by leaders of the Muslim community that they support our nation’s constitutional principles …of religious liberty and specifically renounce any attempts to replace our constitutional system with sharia law.”

Downey said it is an important time for Muslim leaders to show that their goals are “to integrate into American society and our constitutional system while maintaining your ethnic and religious distinctiveness” and embracing a culture of religious freedom.

He said many Americans are asking basic questions about Islam “in good will.” He ticked them off: What are the spectrum of theological threads within Islam? What is the range of thought regarding sharia law, ISIS and the Caliphate? Do the tenets of Islam allow it to exist within the U.S. Constitution?

Downey pushed back against a claim comparing Trump’s ascendency to the rise of Hitler, stressing the right to free speech and saying that while he opposed the candidate’s policies, it was speculative to declare that he was filled with hate and bigotry. He added that attacking an opponents’ character and motivations is “the very antithesis of civil discourse.”

Mohammed Dukuly, an imam at a Brooklyn Center mosque, condemned the terrorist attack in Brussels and told the crowd that Muslim leaders would ask lawmakers to speak out against Islamophobia. He said they should encourage legislators to come to their worship centers to and teach them about the Muslim faith. But while Dukuly praised Downey’s speech afterwards, he said he disagreed with his assertion that Trump’s remarks about Muslims should be protected as free speech and said political leaders must represent all people.

“Everybody should have the right to say what they want to say …but when it comes to saying something that creates havoc and brings destabilization among people, those things should not be considered freedom of speech,” Dukuly said.

Downey said after his talk that most Minnesotans don’t have any experience with Muslims “so my challenge to people of the Muslim community is to clearly articulate for folks that their intent is not to come to America to overthrow the constitutional system and replace it with the sharia system and give people the confidence that the Muslim faith can exist within our constitutional system just like the other faiths have for hundreds of years.”

Downey said the Republican Party is working on more outreach to Muslim voters and plans leadership training sessions later this spring aimed at not only Muslims, but also members of ethnic minority groups, women and millennials.

Zaman said it’s important for Muslims to talk with politicians of both parties at the Capitol.

“It’s very important that both sides are talking …the conversation is not exactly where we want it, but I’m glad we’re having the conversation,” he said.

Still, a list of 28 legislators scheduled to meet with Muslim constituents Wednesday included just four Republicans: Sen. Warren Limmer, Rep. Joyce Peppin, Rep. Tara Mack and Rep. Tim Sanders. “It wasn’t for lack of trying,” said Zaman.

Limmer said he met with several Muslim constituents at their request Wednesay because he has a policy of meeting with anyone. The Maple Grove legislator said they shared concerns that they were stereotyped as terrorists, especially after Trump’s comments about Muslims, “and they were hoping that this was not a universal characterization by other lawmakers.”

He added: “Those new immigrants that are here, we know we need to curry favor with any group in order to win elections, and I think it’s also a sign of a new generation of Republican leadership that wants to be inclusive to many groups in the state of Minnesota.”

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