The U.S. Department of State gave Mohamed Amin Ahmed its 2020 Citizen Diplomacy award for "his grassroots approach to counter violent extremism through pop culture." Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Mohamed Amin Ahmed is a husband and father of four with hopes for more. He’s a business owner who got his first job at age nine and spent years in corporate America. As a Somali immigrant and an American citizen, Mohamed describes himself as just a regular guy who dares to dream big. 

Last month, however, Mohamed received some unusual recognition: the 2020 Citizen Diplomacy award. The recognition represents the highest civilian honor from the U.S. Department of State, currently headed by conservative standard bearer Mike Pompeo. 

This makes some sense: Mohamed has worked as an outreach specialist for the Minnesota GOP. But Minnesota political insiders may know him for another reason: He’s the brother of a rising star of the Democratic party, state Representative Mahmoud Noor (60B). 

Mohamed, 45, collected the government award for creating a series of cartoon videos that seek to connect Somali youth to Islam and persuade them to turn away from the prospect of radicalism. He named his international platform, Average Mohamed–that is, a regular guy, like him. 

Mohamed is a devout Muslim, but says humbly that he’s also sinner. “A sinner just like the rest of us in need of grace and mercy from God,” he said. “The goal is to say, We are not perfect.” 

On Wednesday, September 30, Mohamed received the State Department award in a Zoom ceremony, sitting in his living room in Minneapolis with his children and mother. 

“All of our nominees underwent a rigorous panel review process by senior leaders here in Washington,” Aaron Ringel, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Global Public Affairs at the State Department, said during the virtual ceremony. 

“Mr. Ahmed’s efforts are particularly noteworthy for his grassroots approach to counter violent extremism through pop culture,” he added. “We are so glad Mr. Ahmed decided to bring his talent to America.” 

Reached for comment later, Ringel said the award recognized Mohamed’s work with the State Department through its International Visitor Leadership Program. Here, Mohamed speaks with emerging leaders in collaboration with a pair of international-relationship-building nonprofits, Global Ties USA and Global Minnesota. 

Tim Odegard, program director for Global Minnesota, said Mohamed has met with over 30 of these visiting groups, speaking about youth development and counter-radicalization. 

According to Odegard, Mohamed was still working as a gas station manager when he first met him. At the time, Mohamed was attending school to earn his Bachelor’s at the University of Minnesota. 

“He had just finished his shift at 3 a.m. that morning,” Odegard said. “He’s so incredibly generous with his time. The only thing he ever asks of us is a cup of coffee.” 

‘A capitalist to the core’

The Average Mohamed videos, posted on YouTube and shared on social media, take their aesthetic cues from South Park. They are short: Most clock in under two minutes. And their tone seems geared to younger viewers. Each video offers a different message, but they generally call for acceptance of people from all cultures. 

They reject hate and extremism, and make the case for how that position stems from the Qur’an.  One of the more popular videos, called “Islamic State Job Description,” has been viewed 31,000 times. 

The Average Mohamed videos take their visual cues from South Park. Creator Mohamed Amin Ahmed contracts out the animation to India. “You do everything that every American company has done: outsource,” he said. Credit: Photo courtesy "Average Mohamed"

A few days later, Mohamed reflected on the ceremony at a Minneapolis coffee shop. He wore a North Face jacket and jeans and he smiled easily. “That was really humbling,” he said of the experience. 

Mohamed’s background isn’t in nonprofit work. He isn’t an academic, like his sister, a professor at St. Mary’s University. Nor is he a politician, like his brother, Mohamud Noor. Rather, Mohamed has made his career in business. 

“I’m a capitalist to the core,” he said.

Back when this all started, in 2014, Mohamed worked for SuperAmerica (later rebranded as Speedway before being sold to 7/11). “I was a specialist,” he said. “They called me the turnaround guy because my specialty was going to underperforming stores and turning them around.”

He continued, “Usually when a store is not doing good it’s because of three things: hygiene, cleanliness, and employees.” That year, he visited the Minneaopolis store on Bloomington Avenue and 24th Street. “I cleaned it up, stocked it up, filled it up, and then also improved customer service,” he said. 

Working as a store manager, Mohamed said he learned about youth from his Somali community being recruited to join ISIS. According to Mohamed, then United States Attorney for the District of Minnesota, Andy Luger, had sounded the alarm about extremism in Minnesota. 

Mohamed thought he knew how to sway the young people from his community away from extremist thinking, and that was through the Muslim faith itself. 

“Here I am saying, ‘Look, I know what to say to make sure that you don’t become an extremist,’” Mohamed recalled. “‘Let’s try using what we know, what we believe in,’” he said. 

Mohamed started with the kids in his own family. “We have a big family, so I started talking to my nephews and nieces,” he said. “We said, ‘What’s going on here? What’s going on with your generation? What’s good? What do you like?’”

Out of those conversations with young people, Mohamed came up with the idea to create cartoons that could disseminate a new message. Using $70,000 of his own money, he said, Mohamed created the first set of videos. 

Soon, he was attracting attention from media organizations. He appeared on a PBS program hosted by the late Gwen Ifill. He gave interviews to the Guardian, USA Today, and Fox News. He also attracted the attention of many people who wanted to help. 

One of those people was Erroll Southers, a political science professor at the University of Southern California, who told Mohamed it would be beneficial to set up a nonprofit organization. That’s how he started Average Mohamed

But not everyone is impressed with Average Mohamed

Burhan Israfael, a Somali organizer in the Twin Cities and a member of the activist group Young Muslim Collective, has been critical of federal programs that surveil community groups. He expresses skepticism about the benefits offered by the Average Mohamed cartoons. 

“We did a lot of organizing to get people to move away from this content because we thought and we believe that it’s counterproductive and that it’s anti-Islamic, anti-Black, and anti-immigrant,” Burhan said. “The content was more about propaganda. It had nothing to do with the reality of what was happening in our communities.” 

According to Burhan, activists were concerned to learn that Average Mohamed, with its sometimes violent themes and images, was being shown in Minneapolis public schools, including Roosevelt High School. “We never understood why the Minneapolis Public Schools working with youth would allow this man to show violent propaganda to the youth,” he said. 

Dominique Diaddigo-Cash, another Black organizer in the African immigrant community, also regards Average Mohamed with skepticism. “He is one of the several nonprofits that were pushing this narrative around vulnerable young Somali people from Minneapolis traveling to Syria and Somalia,” Domonique said. 

“If you want to engage the needs of these students, let’s talk about the narrative around extremism that results in bullying.” 

“It has real world consequences,” he said. “The narrative that there’s some terrorist pipeline has resulted in some of the miscarriages of justice. They are using young people’s lives as collateral damage.” 

‘We take the religion, we take our culture, and we use it for messaging’

Mohamed doesn’t draw the cartoons himself. Instead, he hired an artist based in India. 

“You do everything that every American company has done: outsource,” Mohamed said. 

“With freelance, you can find just about anybody with any skill set here today in the world.” Mohamed also hired a sound engineer based in the Twin Cities, and got his family members to record their voices for the different characters. 

The most recent video, published in February of 2019, features Mohamed’s voice. You hear him ask the viewer to imagine a gunman entering a halal market and murdering four people randomly. 

He then relates this scenario to an incident that happened in Paris at a Jewish deli. As he is talking, cartoons show first the imagined scene of the halal shooting followed by the real Paris shooting. The video concludes with Mohamed asking the viewer to denounce the “madness claiming our faith.” 

It’s a jarring video. And while this clip can be seen on YouTube, the service has removed a handful of Mohamed’s other videos. “I don’t know why they took it off,” Mohamed said. “I talk about what the terrorists do, and they say that can be construed as promoting terrorists.” 

(Media representatives for YouTube did not provide a comment to Sahan Journal on why it removed the videos.)

His favorite video features a message about women’s rights. This clip exemplifies the way that Average Mohamed evokes the Muslim faith to counter what he labels extremist thought. 

“You see in Islam, the religion is very clear,” he said. “Men and women are not equal.  But in opportunity they are equal.” 

The video takes as its example the Prophet Mohamed’s wife, Aisha, who was a leader and scholar in her own right. In the video, a young Muslim woman stands at a podium and teaches the audience about Aisha, who she calls “A Muslim pioneer, a pillar of the faith.” 

The young woman then goes on to say women today can have careers in science and technology and be great leaders and thinkers like Aisha. While she says this, the video depicts cartoon images of modern Muslim women achieving great things. 

Mohamed believes this approach speaks directly to his viewers. “If the prophet himself would allow his wife to become that, who are you to tell our daughters not to go to school?” he said. “So we say that’s a false lie extremists tell us because we know the religion. We take the religion, we take our culture, we take our democratic principles, and we use it for messaging.”

It’s effective, Mohamed said, because the people he is trying to reach already believe in the faith. “It’s just a matter of reaffirming the goodness about it,” he said. 

That said, Mohamed doesn’t hold himself up as a religious role model. “I’m a hopeless sinner,” he said. “I’m just an average Mohamed. I do my prayers, and I do the basics, and yes, faith is important to me. Islam is important to us because of our identity. It’s more than our religion, it’s a way of life.”

That’s because his work is so much about building trust, he said. “If this kid finds out that I’m also part of the surveillance system, well guess what? I’m part of something that he doesn’t trust. And we need to build this trust. So we don’t do surveillance.”

Let’s not talk about politics?

Much of Average Mohamed’s work is on hold with the pandemic–especially the speaking engagements. After finishing a Bush Foundation fellowship, Mohamed recently wrapped up his degree. So he’s currently looking for a job to make ends meet. 

The 2020 election hasn’t made his work easier, either, he said. “My board is composed of liberals, socialists, and a few Republicans,” he said. 

He doesn’t talk about politics much with his prominent Democratic brother. And he suspects his political beliefs have stood in the way of funding for his nonprofit organization. 

“Being a Republican cost me a lot because the state is Democrat run,” he said.

That said, he’s been hearing from organizations around the world asking about his model. “I’m in talks right now with the State Department trying to find out if they can help them,” he said. “And we will teach them what we know. So we can get them going. So they can do the same thing in their communities in West Africa and East Africa.” 

Average Mohamed is ready to travel anywhere. 

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. You can find her dance writing at the Star Tribune, and other writing at places like City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, the Southwest Journal, and...