A state legislator is taking heat for attending a private Shariah law event in St. Cloud that critics are calling anti-Islam.
Sen. David Brown, R-Becker, said the backlash he's getting for speaking at the event, billed as "Shariah 101," is unfounded.
"It wasn't [a] hyped-up, Islam-is-terrible type of thing," he said. "It wasn't any of that."
The controversy surrounds the event's main presenter, Jeffrey Baumann. The Coon Rapids man talked for an hour about growing up in Saudi Arabia and the practices of Islam. Critics say that doesn't give him the right to speak as an expert, especially because he's made anti-Islam comments in the past.
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Asked if he considers himself anti-Islam, Baumann said he presents facts and that he challenges anyone to point out errors.
"The core take-home message that I have is that Islam is a complete replacement societal system," he said.
Baumann has spoken publicly against building mosques in Minnesota, calling it "treason" and "aiding the enemy."
Having someone with such views talk about Islam, said Dr. Muhamad Elrashidi, a physician from Rochester, "would be the same as bringing up someone who might be a Klansman to talk about African-American culture, or an anti-Semite to talk about Judaism."
Elrashidi, a Muslim, had reached out to Brown to say it's unacceptable for an elected official to endorse an anti-Islam speaker like Baumann.
Lori Saroya, a Minnesotan who sits on the national board of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has seen Baumann speak at public meetings. She said some of the things he says are ignorant and ill-informed.
If a state legislator like Brown really wants to learn about Shariah law, Saroya said, he should consult members of the Muslim community.
"If he's serious about understanding what Shariah really means and not engaging in this hype and fear-mongering," Saroya said, "he needs to go directly to the source and talk to Muslims about what it means and not these individuals who are hateful and have had negative experiences."
Brown said he was simply there as a lawmaker invited to speak about a bill he introduced last session. That bill would ensure the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution over foreign law. That issue has come up in divorce proceedings, he said, and he cited the example of a Somali woman going through a divorce.
"Her husband wanted the judge to use Shariah law for him to get custody of the children," Brown said. "Fortunately the judge ruled in favor of the woman, based on her constitutional rights."
Elrashidi pointed out that Shariah legally does not supersede the laws of the United States.
"Shariah is simply divine law," he said. "It's no different than canon law or Talmudic law."
He and other critics objected to the event having been private and held at an undisclosed location. It lacked the opportunity for an open dialogue or factual information about Islam and Shariah law.
"That would've gone a long way, but instead it was very secretive," he said. "It was very much promoted in a way that fits with an intent to present a skewed perception."
Baumann said he wasn't behind the decision to close the event to the general public, but he understands that some people who question Islam "are legitimately in fear for their lives."
CAIR officials said they plan to meet with Brown and that he's been open to having more conversations about Islam.