Imam Hassan Jama, the executive director of the Islamic Association of North America, speaks at a press conference condemning efforts to suppress Muslim votes. Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

Minnesota’s Muslims plan to vote during this contentious election season, no matter who tries to stop them and what tactics they use. 

That was the message at a news conference led by faith groups in Minneapolis’ Cedar Riverside neighborhood Friday.

“We will not allow our voices to be silenced,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, deputy director of CAIR-Minnesota. “Not only that, we will also not allow for our votes to be suppressed.”

The event outside the Cedar Riverside Apartments capped a tumultuous week in which President Donald J. Trump and right-wing activists attempted to cast doubts on the integrity of voting in the Somali community.

Faith leaders from Islamic Association of North America, Muslim American Society – MN, Faith in Minnesota, and CAIR-Minnesota were joined by Christian and Jewish leaders as well as elected officials, including Attorney General Keith Ellison and state Reps. Melissa Hortman, Aisha Gomez, and Mohamud Noor. 

“Every election year there is a playbook used by some politicians,” said Imam Hassan Jama, the executive director of the Islamic Association of North America. “The playbook is to use Muslims, Somalis, refugees, and immigrants as scapegoats in order to divide people by what they look like or where they came from instead of offering solutions that could help all of our families.”

Abdisalam Adam, an imam, educator and Fridley school board member, reflected on how he learned about democracy and the importance of civic engagement when he first arrived in the United States. He was dismayed to hear attacks on his community’s participation in the political process from the president of the United States.

“I never thought I would stand before the media to protest against voter suppression, that people who have the determination and the energy to vote are being asked not to go,” he said. “We’d like to tell those people who are trying to intimidate the voters, the Muslim voters, the immigrant voters, that you cannot stop the desire of people to realize the American dream.”

The Somali community’s high voter participation rate and the number of Somali Americans who have been elected to office in recent years is cause for celebration, he added. In the August primary, 49 percent of voters in Minneapolis’ Ward 6, home to Cedar Riverside, cast a ballot in a city council special election–compared to 22 percent of voters who turned out statewide. Three quarters of Ward 6 votes were cast absentee, according to City of Minneapolis data—a higher percentage than any other ward in the city. 

Recent Islamophobic attacks have not been limited to the voting process. Qorsho Hassan, who earlier this year was the first Somali American educator to be named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year, spoke about her experience visiting Duluth over the weekend, days before President Trump’s visit there on Wednesday. She was circled and harassed by white men in a pickup truck. They were “screaming and yelling make America great again rhetoric,” she said.

“But here’s the thing,” she added. “Proud Boys can’t silence us,” a reference to the white supremacist group President Trump name-checked in Tuesday’s presidential debate.

Christian and Jewish leaders spoke up at the news conference as well. Rev. Curtiss DeYoung, the CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches, noted MCC’s long history of resettling refugees in Minnesota and decried the recent attacks on Muslims.

“Some of those shouting hate claim to be Christians,” he said. “There is no place in our faith for demeaning, dismissing, or dehumanizing other folks.”

“Our nation’s leaders are using the language and machinery of white nationalism to target our communities and build their own power using fear and division,” said Carin Mrotz, executive director of Jewish Community Action.

Attorney General Keith Ellison told a story about the racist intimidation his grandfather faced when he organized Black voters with the NAACP in rural Louisiana in the 1950s. His grandmother received threatening calls that he had been tied to a tree (though he wasn’t). No one in town would sell him gasoline. A cross was burned across from his house.

“Whether it is rural Louisiana in the 1950s or ‘60s or ‘70s or even today, or whether it’s in Cedar Riverside in Minnesota, racists and bullies will try to intimidate you out of your vote. But you’ve got to have faith and know that you’re going to vote,” Ellison said. “Thank you for your courage, thank you for your bravery, and know that we got your back.”

Abdulahi Farah from Faith in Minnesota, an interfaith group advocating racial and economic justice, said the attacks had been focused on Cedar Riverside because the predominantly Somali neighborhood has high voter turnout and a high usage of absentee voting. But the attacks would not work, he said.

“Our community has seen what voting does, and we’re taking full advantage in claiming our power,” he said.

Since March, a Muslim coalition has been organizing to turn the vote out in communities across the state. So far, Abdulahi said, they’ve made contacts or attempts with 20,000 potential voters through door knocking, phone banks, and text messages. Another phone bank is scheduled for next week–right in Cedar Riverside.

“You cannot stop our vote,” Abdulahi said, “no matter what you do.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.