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Local leaders speak against Islamophobia, federal anti-terror program

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A diverse group of leaders representing civil rights and religious organizations Tuesday called on Minnesotans to stand against Islamophobia and oppose a federal anti-terror program.

The leaders, who met at the State Office Building for an event organized by the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said they are concerned about recent anti-Muslim comments from presidential candidates and the "negative impact" that the federal government's Countering Violence Extremism program might have on the Muslim community.

"The current climate of Islamophobia, which is creating scapegoating anti-Muslim bigotry, underscores this concern," said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-MN. 

The CVE program is being used "as a vehicle for systematic and large scale profiling" that plays into hands of "our enemies," Hussein said. He pointed to a comment by a Fox News host who suggested looking into "taking some liberties" from Somali-Americans in Minnesota.

Also a few weeks ago, Republican presidential candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz called on authorities to "patrol and secure" Muslim neighborhoods in the United States.

"We cannot allow our own government to engage and fuel Islamophobia by treating and targeting Muslims as a community of suspect which the CVE program does," Hussein added. 

Andrew Luger, U.S. attorney for Minnesota who launched the local version of the CVE called Building Community Resilience, told NPR that the program "could lift up this community and help it fight terror recruiting." 

As part of the program, six organizations that work with Somali youth in Minnesota were recently awarded $300,000 in grants. Grant recipients include a youth sports group, a program that empowers Somali parents, an organization that plans to enhance youth employment opportunities and a group that addresses mental health issues for refugees.

However, several civil rights leaders at the CAIR event said the program puts the Muslim community in the spotlight.

"With the climate that we're living right now, it's really unacceptable for me to accept as a citizen, that the federal government will institute such a program dealing with young men that may be radicalized," said Nathaniel Khaliq, former president of the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP. 

Khaliq, a retired St. Paul firefighter, said there are other issues that need the government's attention, such as finding a solution to the spate of shootings in the Somali community since 2008. 

"That's violent extremism but where's the effort and resources to try to deal with that if you truly care about this community?" he asked.

The current CVE program is similar to the Cointelpro program, a 1960s FBI counterintelligence program that targeted civil rights organizations and political dissents, said Rashad Turner, the leader of the St. Paul chapter of Black Lives Matter.

"There are a lot of false narratives about the Muslim community," said Turner, who converted to Islam in January. 

Community activist Sadik Warfa, who hosts the debate program Fagaaraha Forum, said a town hall event responding to Cruz's comment will be held Friday evening at Ventura Village in Minneapolis.