Minnesota is experiencing a reshuffling of political loyalties as the state GOP forges alliances with a once-reliable Democratic constituency. Following years of indifference, Minnesota Republicans are courting the state’s Somali Muslim community in a bid to drum up support for conservatives running in decisive state and federal races.
However, the state GOP’s outreach has placed Republican candidates in contact with some of Minnesota’s most radical Islamist leaders and institutions, skirting a fine line that often results in legitimizing extremism.
The first signs that Minnesota Democrats may be losing ground with the Somali Muslim community occurred in July, when a hometown crowd attending a “Somali Week” concert booed progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) off the stage at the Minneapolis Target Center. A few weeks later, Omar barely survived a revolt in Minnesota’s reliably progressive 5th District, where she won by a razor-thin margin over a centrist candidate running on a shoestring budget.
Since then, Republicans have doubled down on their outreach efforts. On September 24, the Minnesota GOP held a Somali Republican Dinner at the Doubletree hotel in Minneapolis. Attendees, who heard speeches from party notables such as state auditor candidate Ryan Wilson and Minnesota GOP Chairman David Hahn, celebrated months of unprecedented collaboration between Somali Muslims and the Republican Party.
The high point of this relationship occurred at a July gathering dubbed “SuperEid,” a mass prayer of over 40,000 Somali Muslims at U.S. Bank Stadium celebrating Eid Al-Adha, or the end of the Islamic pilgrimage. The GOP rolled out its political heavyweights in a show of support, mingling with community leaders and expressing common goals and shared values with Somali Muslims.
“Many in our community feel left behind and let down by rising crime, a struggling economy and other problems facing our Somali families and businesses,” said Imam Tawakal Ismail, a favorite liaison between the GOP and Minnesota Somalis. “We’ve had great discussions with Republicans reaching out to offer alternatives focused on shared values, and I look forward to continuing to build these relationships,” he added.
Ismail has remained at the forefront of Somali-Republican collaboration. The imam was there when the GOP opened a Somali Republican Outreach Center in South Minneapolis, he participated in a August luncheon with state Republicans, and he was showered with praise at the Somali Republican dinner in September.
However, the GOP’s inside man from the Somali Muslim community was also a product of one of the most radical Islamic seminaries in America. Ismail is a graduate of the Islamic University of Minnesota, an uncertified religious school that the Investigative Project on Terrorism refers to as a “hotbed of extremism.”
Although the school is not sanctioned by certifying officials in the U.S., IUM is recognized by the Holy Quran University, which the military-Islamist regime of former Sudanese president and war criminal Omar Al-Bashir established in 1990 to propagate Islam. IUM instructors have cursed Jews, refused to denounce ISIS, and glorified Hamas leaders.
Despite acting as the primary interlocutor between Somalis and their conservative partners, Ismail does not appear to publicly speak in English, and save for a few carefully curated statements, writes mostly in his native Somali. Nevertheless, translations of the imam’s social media suggest that he shares his alma mater’s disdain for Israeli Jews, including a Facebook post where he promoted a prayer for “the Islamic people who are being massacred in Gaza” at the hands of “the Jews of Israel.”
SuperEid, where Ismail was one of a handful of prayer leaders, was funded by notoriously extreme “charitable organizations,” such as Islamic Relief USA (IRUSA) and Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD). During the final days of the Trump administration, the U.S. State Department announced that it was “conducting a full review” of IRUSA and its global branches, ending “U.S. government funding” of the nonprofit due to the “anti-Semitism exhibited repeatedly by [Islamic Relief Worldwide’s] leadership,”
HHRD is the international humanitarian wing of the Islamic Circle of North America, a front for a historically violent and genocidal Islamist movement active in South Asia. In 2017, HHRD organized a conference in Pakistan co-sponsored by Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani terrorist group responsible for killing 166 people in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
A third sponsor, the Muslim Coalition of ISAIAH, is a statewide alliance of over 20 mosques involved in a strategic political alliance with hundreds of progressive African American churches. This includes mosques such as the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, a pipeline for international terrorism recruitment where no fewer than six congregants have sought to join ISIS or Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia.
The lead imam at Dar Al-Farooq, who was among a handful of local Somali leaders to lead prayers at SuperEid, is Waleed al-Maneese. A Muslim jurist, Al Maneese has cited Islamic scripture accusing Jews of spreading “corruption in the land” and has instructed Muslims to place Sharia law above “man-made” laws. He claims his mosque joined the ISAIAH alliance because, unlike most Christian organizations, it “doesn’t approve of demands from pro-Israel Jews.”
Inevitably, Al Maneese was spotted interacting with GOP leaders who attended the mass prayer, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen. Appearing in a photo together, the pair cut an unlikely duo: on the right, the top Republican leader in the state of Minnesota; on the left, a Salafist preacher dedicated to pursuing far left causes, so long as they don’t involve standing up for gay rights or Israel.
Republicans who attended SuperEid May have also encountered another prayer leader, Imam Asad Zaman, the head of the Muslim American Society (MAS) in Minnesota. Federal prosecutors have called MAS “the overt arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in America.” On social media, the imam has endorsed Holocaust denialism and the idea that U.S. presidents “depend upon the votes and the influence of Jews in New York who support Israel.”
Besides Jensen, SuperEid guests included Republican candidates for the top offices in Minnesota, including attorney general, secretary of State, and state auditor.
In a gesture intended to cement the relationship between Somali Americans and the Minnesota GOP, party chairman David Hann offered a $5,000 donation to support Somali famine relief. “The donation will be made to a charitable organization that has a record of direct support to the people in need,” wrote Randy Sutter, executive committee member for Senate District 50.
SuperEid sponsors HHRD and IRUSA have historically been involved with drought relief efforts in Somalia, raising serious questions about the ultimate beneficiary of the GOP’s charity. However, party officials have shrouded this recipient’s identity in secrecy. If a donation was made, it was not reported to the campaign finance board, and Republican leaders have not responded to repeated requests inquiring about Hann’s contribution.
Since establishing a Somali Republican Outreach Center in August, conservative candidates from throughout Minnesota have visited the office to pay their respects to Ismail and his team of activists. Their strategy mirrors a larger trend experienced in Muslim American enclaves across America, where conservatives are capitalizing on a growing disillusionment with progressive politics among mainstream Muslims.
In October, Republicans running in statewide races converged on the city of Dearborn, Michigan, joining Muslim citizens demanding the removal of sexually explicit “LGBTQ” books found in school libraries. In August, two Republican congressional candidates agreed to attend a candidate forum at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, Illinois, despite the religious center’s role in multiple terrorism investigations.
Traditionally, the Minnesota GOP may have considered such outreach a fool’s errand. Democrats have long pandered to the Somali immigrant community by supporting social welfare benefits and unrestricted immigration, while some Republicans have viewed their Somali neighbors with suspicion, especially as dozens of Muslim youth left their families behind to wage jihad with Al-Shabaab or ISIS.
“Yes, there are some radical elements within the Somali diaspora, but we must not brand the entire community as unworthy of our affiliation,” Sutter wrote to explain his party’s outreach with the Somali community. “We have been labeled by the [Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party] as prejudiced; we must demonstrate clearly that we are not,” he added.
Yet, by acknowledging such baseless accusations, GOP leaders risk legitimizing them. If Republicans are to make inroads with Somalis and other minorities, they should be thoughtful and strategic about the partnerships they pursue, and stay away from the radical mosques and extremist groups that have typified Democratic alliances.
It remains to be seen if this new partnership will survive the midterm elections. So far, pundits inside Minnesota are quiet about the rapidly changing political conditions, and Republicans appear to have escaped criticism for engaging with extremists.
On the one hand, the Somali community shares many of the values espoused by conservative politicians. On the other hand, the radical imams and extremist institutions that have for so long served as a gateway to this community stand to tarnish this partnership and empower the Islamist minority.
Benjamin Baird is the director of Islamism in Politics, a project of the Middle East Forum.