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Interfaith service's good intentions raise ire of group it aimed to help

Local Somali imams are under attack for taking part in a multi-faith event that showed support for Muslims.

By ALLIE SHAH, Star Tribune

October 15, 2010
No one at the multi-faith prayer service expected the backlash that would unfold. Least of all Abisalam Adam.

Adam was one of several local prominent Somali Muslims who stood  with Christians, Jews, Hindus and others at a Minneapolis event designed to show support for Muslims at a time when a Florida pastor was threatening to burn Quran’s and hostility toward Islam was rising.

Now, he and the others find themselves branded as apostates in a firestorm within the Somali community that has stunned local church leaders.

“Right now we’re in a survival mode to straighten things out,” said Adam, who has been fielding calls from as far away as London and Ethiopia. “At first we thought we would ignore it. Then we decided to respond.”

 He and his fellow leaders at Minneapolis’ Dar al-Hijrah mosque issued statements this week condemning what he called a “manufactured crisis” over his role in the service and particularly imam Abdighani Ali’s “extremist” view of interfaith.

The brouhaha began almost immediately after the Sept 28 multi-faith prier service at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis. About 400 people attended the “Minnesotans Standing Together” event, which was organized by the Minnesota Council of Churches and sponsored by 30-some religious organizations. Several prominent local Muslim organizations were among the sponsors.

A reporter from the Mogadishu Times, a Somali news website based in Minneapolis, covered the gathering and posted an article and some pictures showing the participants holding programs and standing with people of other faiths.

Another Somali news website, somalimidnimo.com, published the same pictures with captions reporting that Somali participants were listening to the prayers of the non-believers, according to a translation.

That set off Abdighani Ali, imam at a small Minneapolis mosques. On  Oct. 1, he blasted the prayers service during his Friday khutbah, or sermon, and later on a Somali TV show.
The debate over whether Muslims should participate in interfaith services soon spilled into the streets, where coffee shops, taxi  stands a shopping malls that cater to the Twin Cities’ large Somali population have been buzzing all week.

“That’s all everybody is talking about,” said Fartun Ahead, a local Somali youth leader whose Facebook posting promoting the Sept 28 event sparked a lively debate online about where Islam allows interfaith activities.

She noted the irony that the people objecting to the multi-faith service are fellow Muslims- the people the organizers were trying to support.

“This mentality of not being able to coexist is not going to work.  It’s another Shabas mentality,” she said referring to the Al-Shabab rebels in Somali that U.S. authorities have labeled a terrorist group.

Those who were at the service say the captions are wrong and misleading.

Meantime, Abdighani Ali has gone from attack mode to defense mode, many Somalis say. “I believe everybody has a right to practice their religion,” he said on Wednesday in an interview. “It’s OK if we talk together. But when it comes to praying together, that’s against Islam.”

To demonstrate that he is not an extremist, he showed a video clip of a TV news report last year in which he was among the first to speak publicly about concerns that the young Somali men who left for Somalia had been radicalized.

A language barrier?

It all comes down to what you mean by “interfaith,” Adam said. To him, it means people of different faiths keeping their own beliefs while seeking a better understanding of one another. But some misconstrue it as blending different religious beliefs together in a way that dilutes each faith,” he said.

In the case of the Sept. 28 event, participants said, everyone prayed according to their own traditions. In fact, the event was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. until it was discovered that one of the five daily Muslim prayers was set to begin around the same time.  So others waited in the church while the Muslims went to a nearby room for their prayers.

Sheikh Sa’ad Musse Roble is an imam at the mosque in Karmel Square, the oldest Somali mall in Minneapolis. He also has come under fire for attending the interfaith event, but he says, “It was beautiful. It was talking about promoting peace, safety and security.”

Roble had no doubts about attending the event, because he said its mission is the same as his – to promote peace among different people. “That meeting was supporting us living in America without harassment,” he said.

Gail Anderson of the Minnesota Council of Churches was disappointed by the backlash. “A lot of it is based on misunderstanding of what we did there,” said Anderson, who added that she’d like to talk with Ali and others who objected to the service. “We were very clear that we weren’t expecting anyone to pray in a tradition that wasn’t their own.”
Despite the backlash, Muslims involved in the historic service say they won’t back away from interfaith work and plan to discuss more activities later this month with other Twin Cities interfaith leaders.

The Tandem Project a non-governmental organization (NGO) founded in 1986 to build understanding, tolerance, and respect for diversity of religion or belief, and to prevent discrimination in matters relating to freedom of religion or belief. The Tandem Project has sponsored multiple conferences, curricula, reference material and programs on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights- Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – and the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Documents Attached: Minnesotans Standing Together - Human Rights & Freedom of Religion or Belief; Islam & Apostasy - Opportunity for Deeper Dialogue; Implementing the Right to Change One's Religion; Norway - Christians & Muslims Sign Declaration on Religious Freedom