Minnesota's growing Muslim population struggles to fit in
MINNEAPOLIS -- Munira Omar applied for a cashier job at Target last week but balked when they called her back for an interview. Sure, she needs the money to help pay for college next year. But the Minneapolis teenager braced for a question about ...
MINNEAPOLIS -- Munira Omar applied for a cashier job at Target last week but balked when they called her back for an interview. Sure, she needs the money to help pay for college next year. But the Minneapolis teenager braced for a question about scanning pork products.
"I'm going to say 'no' and stick to my religion and not change who I am for $7 an hour," Omar said.
As Minnesota's growing Muslim population struggles to balance faith and work, similar dilemmas are flaring up at taxi stands and checkout lines. The debate has ignited a backlash that's clogging Web sites and talk radio with people asking why Muslims would take jobs that conflict with their faith in the first place.
It's also worrying and dividing many Minneapolis-area Muslims, nearly half of whom are Somali immigrants. Some say they fear the incidents will jeopardize the modest gains they've made here and tarnish their image. Others in the state's diverse community of roughly 120,000 Muslims are expressing widely different views of the controversies.
Several Somali leaders say that only a small faction of area Muslims use extremely narrow interpretations of the Quran, such as refusing to handle pork products or transport alcohol-toting taxi riders. Others insist that no ringleaders are stirring the debate, which they say started simply as a series of individual decisions made without consulting scholars or considering the consequences.
Community leaders are hoping the budding tension can be quelled with more tolerance from all sides -- Muslim workers, shoppers and employers. But events in the new few weeks could spark even more debate.
On April 12, a community meeting in Minneapolis will bring together Islamic scholars and U.S. legal experts to air religion-workplace issues. Four days later, the Metropolitan Airports Commission is likely to rule on a proposed crackdown that would suspend licenses if cabbies turn down fares for religious reasons.
Despite the turmoil, it's important to remember that a majority of Muslims and Somalis are enjoying productive and happy lives in Minnesota, said Ibrahim Ayeh, a math instructor at Washburn High School in Minneapolis.
"Just a few people are stirring up this culture clash, while the majority of Somalis and Muslims are absolutely appreciative of what Minnesota has done in welcoming them because they are more successful here than anywhere," said Ayeh, 60, one of the state's first Somali teachers.
Positive examples of co-existence, Ayeh and others say, are being drowned out by the furor.
Consider some less-talked-about signs of accommodation: Minneapolis Community and Technical College is poised to become the state's first public school to install a foot-washing basin to help the school's 500 Muslim students perform pre-prayer rituals. "We want to be welcoming," MCTC President Phil Davis said, noting a student was hurt trying to wash in a regular sink.
Several nights a week, dozens of immigrants -- mostly Somali women -- also fill up classrooms at the Volunteers of America Education Center in Minneapolis. They learn English, math and history en route to high school diplomas.
Minnesota's Muslim population is anything but monolithic, with doctors from Egypt, researchers from India, hair stylists from Kosovo and Iowa-born women such as Lori Saroya, the chairwoman of the recently rekindled local branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Her group recently opened a small office in St. Paul and hopes to provide advocacy and education on Islamic issues.
CAIR's national office has sparked controversy over various political stands and has been accused of having links to terrorist groups in the Middle East, a charge its leaders adamantly dispute. Saroya said she hopes "people won't prejudge us and will give us a chance to spread understanding."