In Bagley, tension over religion and free speech, Muslims and Christians

Lori Saroya
Lori Saroya is co-founder and executive director of CAIR-MN.
Courtesy CAIR-MN

At first glance, the small town of Bagley doesn't seem like a natural choice for an interfaith picnic.

The vast majority of the 1,300 people who live there are white Christians - many of whom had never given much thought to other faiths, at least until recently.

For the last year and half, Bagley has been the center of a struggle over religious rights and freedom of speech -- a struggle which has focused unwanted attention on the small northern Minnesota town.

When a Muslim speaker came to the Bagley area to talk about his culture and faith, longtime residents later invited a touring speaker who railed against "the disease of Islam."

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To help allay fears about those who practice the faith, half a dozen Muslim teachers and advocates from the Twin Cities are headed to Bagley this Saturday to mingle with locals.

"A lot of people in Bagley haven't really met any Muslims," said Lori Saroya, executive director of the Minnesota branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "We want them to see that we're just regular Minnesotans."

Saroya hopes the picnic will put to rest the months of strife sparked innocently enough, in a church basement more than a year ago.

Northern Exposure to Lifelong Learning, a community education program based in Bagley brought in Owais Bayunus, a Muslim speaker to talk about his religion. He spoke in the basement of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. A small crowd showed. He would have come and gone with very little notice, if one member of the audience had not been confused by a few things he said.

Tammy Godwin thought the teacher wasn't clear on who exactly qualified as an "infidel" according to the Quran. She is a evangelical Christian but makes a hobby of researching other religions to see how they differ from her own.

Hoping for clarification, she wrote an email to Usama Dakdok, a Christian who grew up in Egypt and now tours the United States speaking against Islam.

"I had no idea it would turn into the circus it did," she said.

She corresponded with Dakdok for a few weeks and found his arguments against Islam very compelling. She invited Dakdok to speak in Bagley in October of last year and rented the Bagley high school auditorium. But days before he arrived in his RV, CAIR got wind of the event.

Its members sent some letters to the Bagley School District demanding the event be cancelled and district Superintendent Steve Cairns called off Dakdok's speech.

Instead, he spoke at Calvary Evangelical Free Church in Bagley, where Godwin is a member for three nights and a few hundred people.

Outside, there were protesters with signs. From Dakdok's first visit tension in the community escalated.

Lawyers at the Liberty Council working on behalf of Dakdok sent a letter to the Bagley School District demanding he be allowed to speak in the high school auditorium based upon his First Amendment right to free speech. In June the district relented and Dakdok spoke for another three nights.

He was met by larger crowds and even more protesters, including local Rev. Scott Morey who leads three small Lutheran churches in the area.

"The only religious diversity we have in Bagley," he said, "is between the Catholics, the Lutherans and the Baptists."

Morey said world religions are becoming more diverse, even in small town Minnesota.

He slipped into the school in time to hear Dakdok speak, and described a pervasive feeling of hate and fear in the auditorium.

"From where I sit, the Gospel is something to be proclaimed -- not argued," he said, "I heard a lot of criticism of Islam, but no proclaiming of our Gospel."

That night a Muslim woman brought a sign into the auditorium in protest. People shouted at her and the police were called -- an incident that filtered into newspapers and put Bagley on the map for religious strife.

In the aftermath of the second Dakdok event, Morey helped people at CAIR plan their interfaith picnic.

"As people of faith," he said, "we have to decide if we're going to try to change people or look for our similarities. I hope we look for our similarities."

Morey will be on a multi-faith panel at the picnic, which will run from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at Farm by the Lake Retreat Center in Bagley.