The Muslim families rallying in support of the new Qur’an school seemed to swallow up the opposition that night in 2013.
Hundreds of adults and children overflowed the Blaine City Council Chambers, with school supporters stepping up to the podium to talk about the American values of family and freedom. It worked: The council approved the new school, even though more than 80 neighbors had signed a petition opposing it.
As the Muslim community grows in Twin Cities suburbs, community organizers have proved astute at navigating local politics. They have mobilized supporters to win backing for schools and mosques and to challenge bias. And they’ve made powerful allies, including U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger and Gov. Mark Dayton.
In the past two years, new mosques have been approved in St. Anthony and Rosemount. The Qur’an school opened in Blaine. And in Columbia Heights, community members recently mobilized to protest comments allegedly made by a school board member.
“It’s a really conscious effort,” said Amber Michel, a Muslim community organizer. “Experience forces us to organize better and mobilize people more effectively. After a couple of really, really negative experiences, we just approach it differently. There is always a building of community support first.”
International headlines about violent acts carried out by Islam’s fringe followers have shaped some Minnesotans’ opinions on local issues, community leaders say.
“When it comes to issues of Muslims having a fair shake and being part of the community, there seems to be grassroots-level organizing to stop them,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Minnesota.
Those opposing mosques and schools often couch their complaints as problems with parking and zoning, but many Muslims say what’s really at stake is usually a battle for civil rights.
So when a mosque or school group applies for a City Council’s approval, groups have learned to leave little to chance. Even in the north metro, home to several well-established mosques and schools, opposition usually emerges.
“We want to take the opportunity to introduce ourselves and clear up the misconceptions,” said Samad Syed, vice president of the Darul Arqam Center for Excellence, the Qur’an school in Blaine.
Community leaders rely on regular leadership strategy sessions, a strong social media and e-mail network, and big turnouts at events to influence local politicians.
“It does matter when you show up in larger numbers,” Syed said. “That builds up the pressure and the support.”
He and his wife have created a mobile app called Muslim Directory to share events and promote businesses that cater to Muslim clientele. It’s another way for the community to stay in touch, he said.
There are an estimated 150,000 Muslims in Minnesota. The mosque and school projects involve different groups and a mix of heritages, including Somali, Pakistani and Indian families. But out of that diversity, a Muslim unity has emerged. CAIR, the country’s largest Islamic civil liberties group, is a key player. It opened its Minnesota office in the mid-2000s. But the movement extends well beyond CAIR.
Mohammad Zafar, of Oakdale, said he’d never been particularly political, but has been moved to action in recent years.
“I have never volunteered for CAIR, but I am part of all the community. I am there if I am needed,” said Zafar, a former U.S. Marine who works at Metropolitan State University.
When he heard about opposition to the Blaine Qur’an school, he decided he couldn’t remain silent. As a boy growing up in Eagan, he had struggled to memorize the Muslim holy book. He wanted boys to have a school that could help them in that process.
“I needed to get out and say something,” he said. “They can’t stop something without understanding it, just out of fear.”
At a meeting where the issue was discussed, Zafar stood at the podium and said, “This is about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And I want that for my kids.”
Religious principles also help guide the public discourse, said Shah Khan, president of the Islamic Center of Minnesota.
“You can’t break the divine laws and fix the situation. You have to be very polite in your discussion and argument,” said Khan, who lives in Blaine.
In Columbia Heights, community members made calls, e-mailed and knocked on doors to bolster attendance at a recent school board meeting. There, hundreds demanded that board member Grant Nichols resign because of anti-Muslim comments attributed to him on social media. Nichols, who has said someone hacked into his account, could not be reached for comment.
The protest transcended religious and racial lines. The entire staff and student body of Columbia Heights High School walked out to protest one day, then returned to class.
Impressed, Dayton visited the school a few days later to praise the students.
“We were completely blown away by the presence of non-Muslims and by the strength of what they said,” Michel said. “It’s been an amazing experience.”
Over time, progress
Persistence is another pillar of the community’s strategy.
The St. Anthony City Council initially rejected an application for a mosque and community center in the basement of the old Medtronic headquarters, calling it incompatible with industrial zoning. Crowds of supporters proved unpersuasive.
Leaders of the Abu-Huraira Islamic Center brought up the rejection at meetings with Luger, who’d reached out to imams as part of his office’s investigation into young men being recruited to fight overseas. He then sued the small suburb. The city settled the case last year and agreed to allow the basement mosque.
Organizers are now raising money to get the mosque up and running, said Nikki Carlson, a lobbyist for the Abu-Huraira Islamic Center.
Even after a school or mosque gets the nod, community outreach continues. During Ramadan, the center invited neighbors to an iftar dinner.
“Over 150 people showed up who were Christian, Jewish and Hindu,” Carlson said. “They said, ‘We are so glad you are here.’ ”
Blaine Qur’an school leaders regularly invite the mayor and police chief to dinner. “We had a good talk. We had good food with them,” said Mayor Tom Ryan.
Now, when he sees someone from the school at the grocery store, they exchange greetings, he said.
“They are business people,” Ryan said. “They like the country. They’re good people.”