One hour into a presentation on the perceived threat posed by Muslim immigrants, St. Cloud car salesman and anti-immigration activist Ron Branstner ramps up his pitch.
The United Nations, he begins, sends Muslim refugees to the United States and to such cities as St. Cloud, "to divide and conquer, get rid of our Constitution, get rid of our way of life and implement it with another way of life called. …"
Branstner pauses for effect, and a few people in the crowd of 100 shout the answer: "sharia law!"
The speaker nods. "Sharia law."
Branstner's radical message made up of broad anti-Muslim themes mixed with fears about immigration and the cost of helping refugees is increasingly finding a receptive audience, especially in places where new immigrants are changing the face of the community.
He's not the only one talking.
From Mankato to Mountain Iron, speakers such as Usama Dakdok, A.J. Kern, Brigitte Gabriel, Cynthia Khan, Jeffrey Baumann and Clare Lopez are showing up in churches, restaurants, VFWs and community centers to address crowds and air concerns about immigrants, the Qur'an and what they see as a threat to the U.S. Constitution.
Some portray Muslims as practicing a hateful religion, some say Muslims are practically duty-bound to destroy Christians. Others maintain that Muslims are working to someday take control of the United States.
The speeches, which sometimes draw several hundred people, often blend verses pulled from the Qur'an and items plucked from the news to paint an alarming image of Islam, a religion practiced by some 3.3 million Americans, about 1 percent of the population.
To some, such as a Grand Forks, N.D., City Council member who invited Dakdok to speak there last fall, the talks are viewed as an exercise in free speech. But the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and other groups see the message as dangerous hate speech that riles up audiences with depictions of a Christian America under threat.
In December, a few weeks after Dakdok spoke in Grand Forks, a Somali restaurant in the city was firebombed. A Minnesota man has since been charged in the attack.
"A lot of these fears are coming from that type of general fear of the 'other,' and not real knowledge of Islam," said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of CAIR.
Protests and legislation
Anti-Muslim sentiment has risen dramatically nationwide in the past year, sparking protests and anti-refugee legislation in Idaho, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas and elsewhere, said Stephen Piggott of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit focused on civil rights.
In Minnesota, a state senator introduced a bill purporting to protect the U.S. Constitution from sharia, but legal experts said it's completely unnecessary because the threat as depicted by the senator doesn't exist.
Meanwhile, groups like ACT! for America, which has a Minnesota chapter, have gone so far as to push for an end to Muslim immigration.
The local chapter recently sponsored speeches by Lopez, the vice president of an organization known for pushing conspiracy theories and someone Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has said would be on his foreign policy team.
This month, Lopez told a St. Cloud radio audience that Muslims have turned parts of Minneapolis into "no-go" zones, where Minneapolis police fear to enter. Minneapolis officials said there is no substance to the claim.
If there's a hot spot in the state for tensions, it's been in and around St. Cloud, where a series of divisive messages recently surfaced:
A billboard on a local highway said resettling Muslims was either evil or insane. A Minnesota vanity license plate that displayed profanity directed at Muslims was seen in the city and photographed, with the photo circulated on social media.
More recently, an anonymous note left on the windshield of a U.S. military veteran who served in the Middle East said "U KILL R BROTHERS" and told him he should leave town.
Each has given rise to more name-calling and anger on the Facebook page of #UniteCloud, a local organization that uses social media and conversation to bring people together regardless of their religious beliefs.
"The people we are concerned with are people who have never met a Muslim and are nervous, and they don't know how to separate fact from fiction at this point," said Natalie Ringsmuth, one of the #UniteCloud founders. Ringsmuth said she regularly hears of people yelling "Speak English," or "Get out of our country!" to local Somalis.
In an effort to address concerns about the rise of Islamaphobia in Minnesota, the Minneapolis law firm Dorsey & Whitney last week hosted a panel discussion on the issue. Attendees included former Vice President Walter Mondale and members of the legal community, including U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, who said that, left unchecked, "Islamaphobia is going to destroy the social fabric of the state."
A few minutes before delivering his speech on a late winter night at a restaurant in Avon, Branstner greets his audience as it trickles in. A powerfully built man with a firm baritone, Branstner says he only wants to inform people, not incite violence, and has reached out to Muslims and their supporters in nearby St. Cloud.
A recent Facebook post shows him posing arm-in-arm with a Muslim man.
"Not every Muslim is a bad person," he says. "I would never say that."
On this night, Branstner's audience is largely white, male and middle-aged or older. As with a similar presentation by another speaker in St. Cloud a few weeks earlier, Muslims are absent. Branstner said he's comfortable with them attending, but at talks by other speakers, they've been discouraged from showing.
Taking a small stage in the restaurant's banquet room, Branstner uses slides to walk his audience through a two-hour talk delivered without notes.
He says the transition to an Islamic state is already underway, funded by American corporations hungry for cheap labor and condoned by the Obama administration, which, he adds, is staffed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
CIA Director John Brennan, he maintains, is a devout Muslim. Hillary Clinton is an "evil, evil lady" who will take away First Amendment rights if elected president, and a "third wave" of immigrants will soon inundate the United States as those already here bring in relatives, he says.
"None of you are prepared for this," Branstner tells them.
Muslims have derided his talks as inflammatory. The St. Cloud Times fact-checked one speech and found it riddled with errors.
But in a community settled largely by German Catholics, Branstner draws a steady stream of residents struggling to understand their new Somali neighbors. His speeches sometimes pull in 200 to 300 people, many of whom donate money to help him defray expenses.
Last year, his fans nominated him for a Difference Maker award bestowed by the Times' editorial board. He was one of 14 people to win it.
"Ron does have a big following in this community," Ringsmuth said. "We can't just dismiss people like Ron."
Ringsmuth and Haji Yusuf, another #UniteCloud founder, attended Branstner's speech last fall at the Granite City Baptist Church in St. Cloud. At one point, Yusuf raised his hand hoping to correct Branstner on a point about the Qur'an.
Someone hollered "assimilate" and cursed Yusuf, while someone else "said things under his breath," Ringsmuth said.
While Branstner told the heckler to stop and chided him for being disrespectful, a rattled Ringsmuth and Yusuf left the church early to avoid a potential confrontation with others in the parking lot.
Earlier this year, Ringsmuth tried, but failed, to get invited to an anti-Islam presentation by Jeffrey Baumann, a doctor from Coon Rapids. The speech, titled "Shariah 101" and held at a St. Cloud restaurant, drew about 100 people who had been vetted by the event's organizer, former Catholic bookstore owner and St. Cloud resident Kathleen Virnig.
Baumann, who has delivered the presentation for the past five years, cited several Qur'an verses, articles from an oil company magazine and letters written by Muslims to support his contention that Muslims here are on a path to throw out the Constitution and institute sharia. Unless Muslim immigration is stopped and Islam is no longer recognized as a religion deserving of First Amendment freedoms, the country, as it's known today, will be lost, he said.
Those changes are already taking place in Europe, he added, with an Islamic state soon to take over the democracies of the European Union.
While Baumann suggested several times that Muslims consider themselves justified in killing Christians, he said later he wouldn't want his audience to react violently.
"I hope there was nothing in my presentation that suggested that I wanted violence in any way, shape, or form," he said.
As Baumann finished his speech, Virnig stood up and encouraged people to act.
"Your voice is needed seriously and deeply to move our country," she told the crowd. "Minnesota is being watched by many, many other cities and states. If we can do our job and be successful, we will be a model for many other states. Right now everybody thinks we're just going Muslim."
Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747