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Muslim voters say they want to participate, not 'infiltrate'

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Voting booths sit lined up ready for voters at the Coyle Community Center.
Voting booths sit lined up ready for voters at the Coyle Community Center in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis on Nov. 7, 2017.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News

Warnings from GOP legislators that Muslim voters plan to "infiltrate" Republican caucuses appear to have galvanized Muslim efforts to get out and caucus. But Muslim leaders say the rhetoric has extended well beyond the content that the two Republican representatives have shared.  

It started with a Facebook post that said a "Macalester professor from Bangladesh" led a recent caucus training at a mosque. Dave Sina, chairman of the 4th Congressional District GOP, wrote that the training "encourages them to infiltrate them all, Republican, Democratic as well as Green and independent." The post went on to say that "the easiest is the Republican, because they don't show up."

  Republican Reps. Cindy Pugh of Chanhassen and Kathy Lohmer of Stillwater shared the post. Since then, the Facebook page of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota has been flooded with comments. Executive Director Asad Zaman characterized the comments as hateful and in some cases inciting violence.

  "They are the responsibility of those who promoted this in this negative way, including two elected officials," Zaman said. "These are designed to provoke fear, and they have done what they were designed to do. There are people who are afraid, and so they are posting hateful comments."

The video shows a representative from the faith-based advocacy group ISAIAH leading the training. ISAIAH partnered with MAS Minnesota this year to hold caucus training.   

Caucus training has been a longstanding practice in faith organizations. It aims to educate church, mosque and synagogue attendees on how the process works.  

Minister JaNaé Bates, spokesperson for ISAIAH, said the training is nonpartisan — the idea that the message has somehow changed to encourage one religious group to take over one political party isn't true.     

"Because in this particular training you have this white Catholic woman in a Vikings shirt and a black Muslim man facilitating a training — it just incited the deepest amount of contempt for people who are really just trying to engage in politics," Bates said. "Muslim Americans have just as big of a right and responsibility to participate in the political process as anyone else."  

Bates said faith groups have trained more than 1,000 people this year. The representatives' remarks seem to have energized more voters to turn out for caucusing. A phone bank Thursday night aims to reach an additional 3,000 voters.

  "This notion to infiltrate — this word that's getting thrown around, that Muslim people want to infiltrate the political system — I would just challenge people to really consider, what is the difference between infiltrating and participating in the political arena?" she said. "We need to really talk about what we're saying and what we mean. Because words do have power, but the reality is, you can't infiltrate a system that's open to the public."

  Reps. Pugh and Lohmer couldn't be reached for comment.   

But Jeff Johnson, a leading Republican candidate for governor, defended Pugh on the "Living Free" podcast this week. He said putting Republicans on notice that Muslims could infiltrate Republican caucuses is "a good thing."

  "I think she raises very legitimate issues," he said. "I think there's a huge cultural issue that we're talking about here, not just showing up at caucus. There are some here who are trying to change what America is. And we can't allow that."   

The conversation has also reignited discussions about the so-called threat of Sharia law that seems to pop up every election cycle. Johnson said anyone who's putting Sharia law over the Constitution doesn't belong in America.  

"This notion of implementing Sharia law is absolutely ridiculous, in my opinion," said Nausheena Hussain, executive director of the group Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment, or RISE.   

"If you ask the average Muslim, we are not here to do that," she said. "People are worried about the health care system. And they're worried about taxes. They are worried about education."  

She planned to hold her own caucus training Thursday night.  

Some DFLers are now condemning the anti-Muslim sentiments. National Democratic Committee Chair Tom Perez tweeted Thursday "Every Minnesotan and American citizen has the right to participate in the democratic process." Congressman Keith Ellison expressed disappointment in Johnson's remarks tweeting "I never dreamed that he would condone religious bigotry and hate, including against Muslims. Always thought he would be one of the cooler heads. Oh well."