John Burns had been living in Willmar for some time, but one interaction in particular stands out. An acquaintance wanted to recruit him to a group that has been warning others about the dangers of Islam and the infiltration of Muslims into their west-central Minnesota community.
But Burns, 75, was the wrong guy. He’s been voicing concerns against anti-Islamic sentiments in the town, which is home to a growing Somali American population. He’s written letters to the editor, spoken at city council meetings and called every media outlet he could think of.
“These people often have the enthusiasm of somebody who’s just discovered a new religion that explains everything,” Burns said of a local group that bills itself as a patriotic Christian organization. “At some point it turns into fanaticism, and that’s troubling.”
The group, called “Thee Book Club,” has rented an auditorium Thursday evening at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar to host a controversial speaker who’s made his mark across Minnesota and beyond trying to convince attendees that Islam is a dangerous cult.
Usama Dakdok, a Christian who grew up in Egypt, visited northern Minnesota more than 20 times from 2015 to 2016, often speaking to rural communities with small or no Muslim populations. He’s back in Minnesota this week to address crowds in the communities of Backus and Willmar, where he’s spoken at least once before. He’s also taken his anti-Islam message to Rochester and St. Cloud and across the country.
Dakdok, who heads an organization called The Straight Way of Grace Ministry, claims he’s got nothing against followers of Islam.
“We do not have any hatred toward the Muslim people — we hate Islam,” Dakdok said in an interview this week. “We hate the ideology of Islam, which called every Christian an infidel.”
But many Muslim community leaders counter Dakdok’s interpretation of the Quran. You can’t separate Muslims from Islam, they say, and that hateful messages against followers of the faith have led to fear and violence.
Messages left for members of Thee Book Club referred questions to Dakdok.
An interfaith group that includes leaders from ISAIAH and the Islamic Society of Willmar plans to rally outside of Dakdok’s talk Thursday evening. More than 200 people are expected to show up with signs, chants and even an eclectic playlist that includes “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan and “This is America” by Childish Gambino.
Jonathan Marchand started a Facebook group called “Keep Hate Out of Kennedy Elementary” less than two weeks ago, and it has grown to almost 500 members. Marchand said he takes issue with how Thee Book Club has advertised the event as an educational seminar.
“We have a community that is very diverse in ethnicity, in culture, in religion,” Marchand said. “When you’re looking at bringing a person from outside of the community into the community who is going to get up on a public platform and basically denounce the religion that a group of people follow as evil … it’s only serving to undercut what our efforts of becoming a community of diversity and multi-nationalism.”
Willmar, a city of fewer than 20,000 people, has for the past decade attracted immigrant groups looking for work opportunities at the turkey processing plant Jennie-O. About 1,300 residents are Somali, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. More than a fifth of the city’s population is Hispanic or Latino, and 9 percent is black or African American, according to 2018 census data.
The city has experienced growing pains over the past decade as new faces have opened shops downtown, the schools enrolled more students of color and the city granted a permit for a new mosque.
The changes have at times prompted conversations about religion and culture and they’ve led to the city implementing a welcoming resolution. But other times more serious incidents dominated the conversation.
In 2017, a Willmar man who later claimed he was exercising his free speech rights pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after he left a pig’s foot at a farmer’s market stall managed by Somali residents.
The same year, former City Council Member Ron Christianson was criticized for clicking “like” on a woman’s Facebook post that said, “We need to get these people out of our country and back to other Muslim hell holes where they will fit in because they don’t fit in here and never will.”
Last year, a man with a sign preaching Christianity stood outside of the Islamic Society of Willmar as worshippers left Friday prayers.
Usama Dakdok is essentially trying to do the same. He says he welcomes people of all religions to attend his seminars, in which he preaches Christianity as the right path to follow.
But his critics say it’s not that simple — he’s also condemning Islam.
“What he’s saying is whoever practices that religion, is what you should be afraid of,” said Hamdi Kosar, a Somali American community organizer who’s been inviting people to Thursday’s rally. “When you plant that seed in someone’s heart and mind, what do you expect them to do? They will react.”
A number of residents and parents have also voiced concerns to Willmar Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Holm. Some told him they wouldn’t send their children to school on Thursday and asked him to cancel the event. But Holm said the district attorney advised the administration to move forward with the event or risk being sued.
“It’s a challenging situation for us here in Willmar,” Holm said. “There isn’t any mechanism for us to say because one group of people or another is alarmed or concerned that we can violate policy and potentially violate First Amendment rights of any other group of people or individuals.”