Al Jazeera comes to Minnesota to study anti-Muslim hatred and violence

Islamophobia Inc. is about the forces that feed hatred of Muslims in the United States.

Islamophobia Inc. is about the forces that feed hatred of Muslims in the United States. AL Jazeera Media Network

It was a warm night in Minneapolis, June 2016. Abdirahman Hassan and his friends had just finished playing basketball. They were young, Somali men, walking down a Dinkytown sidewalk together, on their way to prayers. It was Ramadan.

Hassan says the night felt eerie. They noticed a group of people coming out of a bar were watching them, sizing them up, noticing their traditional clothes for the holiday. The plan was to get out of there, and not engage. Then one of them looked them dead in the eye and said “fuck Muslims.”

The five of them just got into their car. They didn’t want any trouble. But as they started driving away, they heard it again. “Fuck Muslims.” Hassan slowed the car down and addressed the stranger.

“Why would you guys say something like that?” he asked.

The stranger put his head right next to the window. “I said fuck Muslims. What are you guys going to do about it?”

The next thing any of them knew, the stranger was standing about 10 feet in front of their car, holding something.

“Is… is that a gun?” Hassan asked. “…Oh my God, that’s a gun.”

The stranger said he had a license to carry, and that he was going to kill them. Hassan ducked and put the car in gear. He heard a bullet whiz past his head. In the backseat, his friend, Hussein Gelle, looked down and saw blood pouring out of his leg. They quickly drove off. They couldn’t head to prayers anymore – they had to get Gelle to a hospital. On their way there, Abdulahi Aden, who had been worrying about how much Gelle was bleeding, looked down and noticed his leg was covered in blood, too. The car interior was soaked in the stuff by the time they arrived at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

They both survived. The shooter, Anthony Sawina, a 26-year-old Lauderdale man, was eventually sentenced to 39 years in prison, as a jury determined he’d shot at the men in the car not out of self-defense, as he'd claimed, but because they were Muslim.

For a long time after that, Gelle would have nightmares about that evening. He’d wake up coated in sweat, thinking he’d been shot again.

This moment is a bruise on Minnesota’s recent history, and it’s one of the hard-to-watch moments in a new Al Jazeera documentary: Islamophobia Inc. Reporter Simon Boazman looked into the Dinkytown shooting as one of many anti-Muslim incidents cropping up in the United States in the last few years. FBI statistics show anti-Muslim assaults have been on the rise, from 35 in 2005 to 63 in 2010, finally reaching over 90 in 2015. Numbers like that haven’t been seen since 9/11.

“Everywhere we went, from Minnesota to New York to Atlanta, you heard the same things over and over again,” Boazman says. People decrying Islam, saying Sharia Law and the Muslim Brotherhood were going to undermine the Constitution, and that all Muslims are secretly terrorists, trying to infiltrate the United States government. And where you see those sentiments, you see crimes committed against Muslims.

What Boazman eventually discovered was that a handful of vocal groups have been taking millions in donations to parrot the same talking points and stoke Islamophobia. Groups like ACT for America – a self-described “national security organization” -- and the Center for Security Policy, run by Breitbart author and former Reagan administration member Frank Gaffney.

Usually it begins online, with articles and videos circulated from the groups’ websites and social media feeds, sometimes even appearing on national news networks like CNN. That inspires followers to run actual boots-on-the ground protests, demonstrations and speaking events espousing the so-called dangers of Islam. One protest came to the steps of the Minnesota Capitol last June, part of a nationwide ACT for America demonstration against Sharia Law. Officers in Seattle had to use pepper spray to break up a fight following protests in their city. Meanwhile, seven people in Minneapolis were arrested during scuffles between protesters and counter-protesters outside the Capitol.

“I think what happened in news digestion over the years… is that people now seek out information that reaffirms an idea that they already have,” Boazman says. “And now we have a media set up to, in a commercial sense, feed its audience.”

Boazman came to Minnesota because it has such a large Somali population. Along with the Dinkytown shooting, the documentary also highlighted last summer’s bombing at the Dar Al’Farooq center in Bloomington. He found Muslims here palpably concerned about the rise in hate for Islam, but cautiously optimistic that things can get better.

It’s not that Minnesotans' attitudes toward Muslims are any better or worse than in the rest of the country, Boazman says. In general, he found Minnesotans “wonderfully warm.” The state just happens to be a microcosm for the moment when a man feels justified shooting at five young men in a car because one of them is dressed for church, or when three from Illinois feel justified in bombing a suburban mosque. It’s a moment, Boazman says, that will be hard to get out of.

“It’s very hard to out-logic and out-fact a conspiracy theory,” he says. “You can’t out-argue people’s beliefs, and people believe what they believe because they’ve been told the same thing over and over again.”

The journalist is grateful for people willing to share their encounters with those willing to hurt them solely because of their religion, even though it could open them up to more vitriol, more violence.

“Sometimes that requires sacrifice.”

Al Jazeera is no longer available in the U.S., but Islamophobia Inc. will be available on its website.