When I received a press release a few weeks ago announcing that a new Center for Somalia History Studies had been founded by, among others, former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, I almost could hear something ticking.
After all, controversy seems to stick to Fletcher like a bruise. Without even getting into the obvious, such as the raids prior to the Republican National Committee protests -- which resulted in lawsuits -- Fletcher's knack for ruffling feathers is nearly unmatched in local law-enforcement and political circles.
Things just seem to get complicated when Fletcher is involved, even when he appears to be doing good. For example, when he tried to raise money for the homeless, critics complained that he used the private list of gun permit owners to pitch his fundraiser, which was at a gun range.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Fletcher could rescue a puppy from a burning building, and a segment of the metro area would ask: "What's your angle?"
So when news spread that Fletcher was holding a seminar Thursday aimed at law enforcement types to help them understand the history and culture of Somalia, it was little surprise to find out that not everyone was thrilled.
On Monday, days before the event was held, some Muslim and Somali leaders sent a letter to law enforcement agencies questioning the presenters' "lack of credentials and their history of unsubstantiated, hate-inspired ... fear-mongering."
The Center on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and about a dozen other organizations personally attacked some of the presenters, especially Omar Jamal, former executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, and Abdirizak Bihi, director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center, as "unrepresentative of their community and unqualified to speak on the topics." They characterized the program as "anti-Muslim and anti-Somali."
Those accusations surprised the presenters like Bihi, who is, in fact, Somali. "Everyone is shocked by it," said Bihi. "This [program] is something unique. There is a huge need to educate our Minnesota colleagues about Somalia."
I asked Bihi if the uproar was simply a matter of debate about who should speak for the Somali and Muslim communities, an issue whenever controversy arises.
"I think it's beyond that," said Bihi. "I think they want to stifle anybody who speaks out against Al-Shabab."
Bihi's nephew was one of the Somali youth lured to Somali to fight, and was killed. But it's not Bihi, or Fletcher, who labels Al-Shabab a terrorist organization: The U.S. government did that in 2008.
I sat through the morning sessions of the seminar. It seemed like a pretty straight-forward history lesson to me. An hour of the daylong presentation was dedicated to Al-Shabab, but considering that 20 young Somali men have been lured from the Twin Cities to fight with the organization, it only seemed logical. Very little was about religion, and I saw no criticism of the Muslim religion, only of terrorist acts.
As Fletcher pointed out later, "Most of that information was from [Arabic news organization] Al Jazeera."
The rest of the day featured lessons on culture, social issues, families and clans, Fletcher said.
Jamar was also surprised by the controversy and that the people who predicted a Muslim-bashing session didn't seem to bother to attend. "I am anti Al-Shabab, not anti-Muslim," Jamar said. He then handed me a statement from his attorney, Peter Erlinder, who was also on the advisory board to CAIR. Erlinder had taken a sabbatical from the board because of his "dual role." The letter seemed to caution against further character attacks on Jamal and Bihi, under threat of legal action.
Fletcher acknowledged he was "walking a minefield" by wading into the topic, and that it was "odd for a white guy" to be lecturing on Somalia. But he says his experience working in the Hmong community has taught him that cities need to better understand immigrant populations before trouble arises, and he knows how to talk to law-enforcement workers.
CAIR's Lori Saroya said she spoke with someone who attended the seminar and thought presenters misrepresented that Minnesota Somalis went to fight for Islam, not nationalism. She also said in an e-mail that CAIR is concerned the training would increase law-enforcement use of religious and racial profiling.
(My recollection is that Fletcher spoke at length about the men's nationalism.)
The seminar, which cost $150, was meant to help judge the market for such services. About 80 paid for the event, and the money will go toward establishing a nonprofit, if the group decides there is a need for it.
Fletcher says he has long been fascinated by the Somali story, "and everything they've been through." He said he's spent more than 1,000 hours studying the history of the region, and Thursday Fletcher spoke mostly extemporaneously for about two hours as photos and news clips flashed on a screen.
During a segment on how an American-born kid was lured to Somalia and now has become a significant leader of Al-Shabab, Fletcher turned to his law-enforcement colleagues and warned: "If it can happen in Daphne, Alabama, it can happen anywhere in America."