Minn. Muslims condemn extreme views of local imam

Abdighani Ali
Abdighani Ali has come under fire for controversial statements he made on this local Somali TV show and elsewhere against Somali imams who attended an interfaith service in Minneapolis. Ali said the imams and other Somali-Americans who attended the faith were infidels.
Photo from Somalia Media TV

Muslims in Minnesota's Somali community are condemning what they believe to be extreme views espoused by both a Twin Cities imam and the operator of a local Somali website.

Upset that the two men publicly derided Islamic spiritual leaders as "infidels" for attending a recent interfaith service, followers of Islam and its peaceful tenets have rallied to speak out.

The Sept. 28 multi-faith prayer service seemed innocuous enough. Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other religious leaders stood side by side with their Muslim counterparts at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

They wanted to reassure the imams in the wake of anti-Islamic sentiment seemed to be sweeping other parts of the country, such as a Florida pastor's plan burn the Quran. The interfaith leaders said Muslims were welcome in Minnesota.

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Abdisalam Adam, a Minneapolis mosque official who attended the service, said he was touched by the gesture.

"We have learned from the people of Minnesota their hospitality, openness, and tolerance," Adam said. "It's something we've always appreciated. So I thought this was another good example of that leadership, coexistence and people of Minnesota working for the good of the community."

But since then, Adam has learned not everyone in his community had such warm feelings toward the event.

A Minneapolis imam named Abdighani Ali went on Somali TV and radio, declaring that Somalis who attended the service were non-believers. Ali's claims were echoed online by a man named Abdiwali "Dalboon" Warsame. On his website, Warsame wrote that the Somalis who entered the church lost their Islamic faith.

Adam said he and the other religious leaders were appalled.

"We thought, 'Should we let it go?' " he said. "But after careful consideration, we decided we cannot let it go."

While some saw the imam's comments as a vicious attack on community leaders, other Somali-Americans simply found it baffling. When Ali, the imam, appeared on a live call-in show on local Somali TV, he said the purpose of such interfaith services was to water down Islam and fold it into other religions.

He said in Somali that the imams who attended the service were singing for Jesus and reading prayers as instructed on the fliers -- a claim that the imams deny.

"If anyone goes there, and they stand there, and they take part in the prayers in the church, and they read from their papers, they are not Muslims," he said, according to a translation. "The person who is standing there is just like the infidels."

At the Minneapolis charter school where he works as an assistant director, Ali was a lot less outspoken than his on-camera persona. He denied characterizing the imams as infidels.

"No, I didn't say that," Ali said. "If the people pray, and for example, if someone goes to the church, and prays in the church, we consider them to be Christian people."

Ali said he did not know Warsame, the operator of the controversial website, which many Somali-Americans say sympathizes with al-Shabaab. In numerous articles, Warsame frequently invoked Ali, crediting the imam for exposing the "scandal" carried out by the Somalis who attended the multi-faith service. Warsame responded to an e-mail inquiry seeking comment that he stands by his coverage of the event.

Ali cut the interview short when pressed about the online video of his comments -- as well as inflammatory descriptions of the service found on his own website.

Many Somalis-Americans, the vast majority of them Muslim, say they feel compelled to distance themselves from Ali.

"To hear an imam who lives here in America say something like that surprised me," said Ilyaas Maow, editor of the Minneapolis-based Mogadishu Times news site. "This is something new to us. I've never heard imams challenging other imams, or questioning their loyalty to Islam."

Maow said Somalis in Minnesota were taken aback with the statements made by the imam and the web author of the articles. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent" of the community disagrees with the two men, Maow said.

At a time when fear and misunderstanding about Islam seem to be growing in this country, Maow said he hopes the comments don't give more fodder to Americans who suspect the worst about their Muslim neighbors. Maow said many moderate Muslims feel they must speak up now, to make sure extremist ideology does not spread.

"I'm concerned about this particular imam," he said. "The reason is he's a powerful speaker. Imams like him saying something like this -- it could have a negative effect. We have young people that are listening. It sends the wrong signal."

But others who know Ali, the imam, say they don't believe even he buys into his own rhetoric.

Many Somali-Americans say they're more in tune with extremist speech ever since federal agents began investigating the radicalization of young men who left for Somalia to join a terrorist group. News that boys were being radicalized in Minnesota came as a surprise to many Somali-Americans.

But now, they say their eyes are wide open.

"Now we are awake," said Abdi Mohamed, a Bethel University student and limo driver from Minneapolis who said he supports dialogue between cultures. "If we see something in our community that is extremist, we're going to call them out on it. They have to be confronted, and they have to be held accountable."

Such unpopular views aren't likely to draw the attention of law enforcement. The FBI is not concerned whether people simply express extreme ideas, said agency spokesman E.K. Wilson.

"As far as any FBI interest or operational interest, there is none. I mean, it's not against the law to disagree, or to voice that opinion," said Wilson, the international terrorism supervisor in Minneapolis. "But I would say it's a little bit disappointing."