Opposing rallies focused on Islam culminated in bursts of violence Saturday after members of both groups confronted each other outside the State Capitol in St. Paul.
A group of more than 300 counterprotesters gathered on the Capitol steps in response to a "March Against Sharia," an event held inside asserting that sharia, a set of Muslim principles drawn from the Qur'an and the teachings of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, is a threat to American democracy.
The anti-sharia event was organized by ACT for America, which has been classified as an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It was one of 28 similar events planned across the nation Saturday.
The fights culminated in seven arrests, most of them counterprotesters. No one was hurt, according to authorities.
As both rallies wrapped up after 1 p.m., a group of 15 to 20 people from the anti-sharia event, some of them wearing camouflage gear and vests, walked outside to the front of the Capitol near where counterprotesters were gathered. They approached the counterprotesters and began to argue with them.
The confrontations then escalated, moving across the street from the main section of the Capitol lawn. As counterprotesters chanted, "Off our streets, Nazi scum!" state troopers surrounded the anti-sharia group and began to escort them to a nearby building.
Several fights then erupted between the two groups, drawing shoves, kicks and fists. Troopers lined up to separate the counterprotesters from the anti-sharia group, who were backed up against a building across the Capitol lawn. Scuffles ensued as tension built, with many counterprotesters criticizing officers.
The anti-Sharia group then entered the building via a back entrance, waving at the counterprotesters as they yelled at them to leave. One man flashed "OK" symbols with his hands, a gesture associated with the alt-right movement, which has views often coinciding with white supremacy.
More chaos then erupted between some counterprotesters and police, with officers continuing to detain people and place them in squad cars. After more squad cars arrived, the situation eased.
Most of the seven people arrested were booked on a range of charges, from disorderly conduct to disrupting the legal process, according to the state Department of Public Safety. Two face assault charges.
"I was hoping for this whole entire thing to be peaceful," said Jaylani Hussein, the executive director for the state branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN). "We got a lot of people who were extremely angry; we got a crowd that was extremely tired from the heat."
The groups had remained fairly separated earlier in the day. People who were going to the smaller "March Against Sharia" event were asked by Capitol security to enter from the building's northern entrance.
Hundreds of counterprotesters stood on the Capitol steps to listen to speakers and hold signs denouncing hate against Islam, with the temperature creeping above 90 degrees. "Today people just like you ... are overshadowing hate across the country," Hussein told the audience.
Inside the Capitol rotunda, about 100 people gathered to speak against Islam and sharia. Some held signs saying "Islam is un-American," "End Muslim Immigration" and "Female genitalia matters ... unless you're antifa [anti-fascist]."
Tammy Varholdt, of Andover, led a prayer before speakers. "God gave us free will," she said. "It's up to each of us to choose how we use it."
She added, "This is not about political parties ... it is about protecting people."
A letter from ACT for America founder Brigitte Gabriel was read, with the crowd cheering at its call for tighter restrictions on immigration and standing to applaud when President Donald Trump was mentioned.
Dueling rallies across the nation
Similar events took place in more than 20 U.S. cities after ACT for America announced that it would hold its marches. Arrests were also made in Seattle, where police used pepper spray to break up fights.
"If you stand for human rights, please join us to march against sharia. Sharia is incompatible [sic] with our Constitution and with American values," the group wrote on its Facebook page. "We stand against female genital mutilations and child marriages."
American Muslim groups and their supporters say such statements reflect a prejudiced misunderstanding of what sharia is and how it is manifested in different cultures. They have accused ACT for America of racism and Islamophobia and plan counterprotests nationwide.
ACT for America says on its website that it aim to fight terrorism and promote national security. It portrays sharia as incompatible with democracy.
In the United States, sharia is most likely to come up in divorce and custody proceedings or business litigation that could not be resolved in a religious setting. The kinds of extreme practices ACT for America blames on sharia are isolated and primarily cultural, scholars and Muslim leaders say, and roundly rejected by a vast majority of Muslims.
Before the rallies, CAIR-MN encouraged the public, including anti-sharia protesters, to tour a nearby mosque, the Minnesota Dawah Institute in St. Paul, later in the afternoon. And from 8 to 10 p.m. Saturday, an interfaith iftar — a dinner that breaks the Ramadan fast — would be held at the Cedar Cultural Center.
Hussein, however, said he did not get a chance to invite protesters to the mosque following the fights.
Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753