2014-08-21
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Groups object to St. Paul Somali seminar, call it anti-Muslim


By Richard Chin
rchin@pioneerpress.com
Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A group of Islamic and Somali organizations said Monday that an upcoming educational seminar on Somalia organized by former Ramsey County sheriff Bob Fletcher is anti-Muslim and anti-Somali and will lead to a rise in racial and religious profiling.

The seminar, called "Understanding the People of Somalia," will be put on Thursday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in St. Paul by the Center for Somalia History Studies, an organization founded by Fletcher this year.

The seminar brochure says training will be provided on al-Shabaab, "an Islamic Extremist Organization," and says that topics covered will include "Clans and Sub Clans," "Black Hawk Down," "Youth Gangs," "Transition to America" and "Somali Culture."

But a message being emailed to law enforcement agencies throughout the state who might be sending people to the seminar warns that the attendees "will receive inaccurate and biased information about Muslims and Somalis," according to A. Lori Saroya, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN).

The message says two speakers at the seminar - Omar Jamal, former executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, and Abdirizak Bihi, director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center - are "unrepresentative of their community and unqualified to speak on the topics outlined in the upcoming presentation."

The message describes Jamal as "highly controversial and a convicted felon" and Bihi as having a "checkered past" and "no known educational qualifications."

A woman obtained a harassment restraining order against Bihi in 2004 after she said he stalked and threatened her in a dispute over Somali terrorism. This year, she praised him for his work with Somali youth.

On Monday, Bihi told the Pioneer Press that he did not wish to immediately comment.

The CAIR-MN message also objected to the description of al-Shabaab as an "Islamic extremist terrorism" organization because it "fails to distinguish between Islam and terrorism."

The message is endorsed by about 30 organizations, according to Saroya, including mosques, Islamic centers, the Muslim American Society of Minnesota and Somali Action Alliance.

Saroya said she feared the seminar would result in "just a lot of bias and misinformation."

Fletcher, now a St. Paul police watch commander, noted that aside from himself, the three other speakers at the seminar are Somali.

"I am befuddled that three Somali persons could be perceived as anti-Somali," he said.

He said that Jamal has been a controversial figure but that he holds an official position as a Somali representative to the United Nations. Fletcher also said Jamal is not a convicted felon.

"That's a slanderous statement," Fletcher said.

Jamal declined to comment, saying he'd rather leave that to Fletcher.

Federal jurors in Memphis, Tenn., found Jamal guilty of five felony counts of immigration fraud in 2005.

Fletcher said it is correct to characterize al-Shabaab as an Islamic extremist terrorism organization.

The State Department designated al-Shabaab a foreign terrorist organization in February 2008.

However, Fletcher said, "the conference is directed at the history and culture of the community. There will be very little discussion of religion itself."

He said he has invited Saroya to participate in the seminar.

Saroya said CAIR-MN was not invited to be part of the seminar, adding that "no Somali organization" would sign on because "that would give Bihi and Jamal legitimacy."

"I would hope that people would wait to see the training before they pass judgment on it," he said. "Ninety percent of the training will be viewed as really not controversial."

"It's an informational seminar. There's nothing ideological about it," said Dahir Jibreel, the current executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, who will be speaking at the meeting.

"If there's one person who can speak for Somali issues to the media, it's myself," Jibreel said. "There is nothing anti-Muslim or anti-Somali in the seminar. I am a Muslim."

Fletcher said the $150, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seminar is being marketed primarily to government agencies that serve the Somali community. He said he expects fewer than 100 participants.