Last year, I was asked by the civil rights group CAIR-Minnesota to research the financing behind a rash of disparaging news coverage of Minnesota’s Muslims. I assumed I’d be cataloging the work of a few small-town bloggers, and that the hard part would be managing expectations.
I smiled, deposited the check, and confined my white-boy skepticism to my notes. It took less than a week of Googling to learn how wrong I was.
Despite the stereotype of a rural “Trump Country” lashing out at immigrants, most of Minnesota’s aggressively negative news about Muslims is produced by a group of Twin Cities donors, policy wonks, and strategists tied to the state’s most powerful Republican organizations.
“You can’t object when your children are bullied by feral Somali youth,” declared Alpha News in a story last September titled, “The St. Cloud Times Shills for Refugee Resettlement.” Its president, Alex Kharam, is the executive director of the Freedom Club, a major power in Minnesota Republican politics.
“Textbooks in America must be approved by Islamist groups,” claimed Deplorable Housewives of the Midwest in June 2018. The blog’s CEO is Susan Richardson, who served on Ted Cruz’s Minnesota Leadership Team during the 2016 presidential primary.
“They [Somali refugees] also bring cultural and law enforcement challenges: the practice of polygamy and female genital mutilation, low workforce participation by men, and inexperience with the requirements of citizenship and voting,” announced the Center of the American Experiment—Minnesota’s premier conservative think tank—in 2016. It has counted VPs from multiple Fortune 500 companies on its board over the years, including John Gibbs of Comcast and Bill Guidera of 21st Century Fox.
Though I grew up in western South Dakota, I, too, had bought into the “Trump Country” narrative. So I was shocked to learn how completely the facts supported the experiences of Muslim Minnesotans.
Robert Cummins is an engineer and entrepreneur who freely mixes his Catholicism, politics, and business. He founded Fargo Electronics, a printer-manufacturing company, in 1974. After selling in the ’90s, he launched another one, Primera Technology, and founded the Freedom Club. Within a decade, it had become a mainstay of Minnesota Republican politics.
According to its website, the elite conservative group is composed of people who “understand the impact of out-of-control wasteful government spending, high taxes, burdensome regulation and big government.” It takes no official public positions on immigration, religion, or race.
The Freedom Club doesn’t make its membership public, but an application requires a donation to the Freedom Club State PAC, which gives to politicians who share its agenda. Between 2009 and 2010, according to campaign finance records, more than 40 percent of the MNGOP’s donations came from the Freedom Club or from people who made membership-level donations.
The investment paid off.
“In 2010 the Freedom Club led the way in putting the Minnesota Legislature in Republican control for the first time in state history,” the club’s website boasts. Cummins and his allies used the opportunity to push for a right-to-work bill, which would allow workers to opt out of paying union dues, while still requiring unions to bargain on their behalf.
Yet Republicans refused to take up the issue, so Cummins began looking for a more effective strategy and the people to enact it. He found Alex Kharam, a former aide to Minnesota state Rep. Branden Peterson (R-Andover), who became the club’s executive director in 2013.
Two years later, Kharam incorporated Alpha News, registering it to the same UPS Store mailbox he used to register a conservative communications firm he runs. Kharam has been president of Alpha ever since. Another Cummins employee, Cole Mathison, is treasurer.
(Cummins declined to be interviewed for this story. But his lawyer, Ronald Shutz, offered a written statement: “Bob Cummins has been one of the leading philanthropists in Minnesota, providing opportunities for inner-city schools, churches, and other charities enabling them to serve and better our community. Any characterization of Mr. Cummins as a funder of ‘anti-Muslim’ propaganda is false.”)
At first glance, Alpha News appears to be just another right-leaning site. A banner declares it an “independent voice for Minnesotans.” Though it has little to no advertising, it studiously mimics the tone of mainstream media, with stories about pro-life events, elections, and crime. Yet this style is embedded with a variety of rhetorical devices used to perpetuate conservative tropes without saying much explicitly radical.
One is exaggeration. Take a holy day event at the Mall of America in 2016, attended by thousands of Muslims. When a fight among four boys and six girls ages 12 to 15 led to disorderly conduct arrests, Alpha reported that “Chaos Breaks out at Mall of America During Islamic Celebration.”
Writers also weaponize insinuation. In a story about fraud committed by a Somali daycare provider, Alpha wrote: “Why did the state allow the center to remain in operation after the April 2014 citation about the lack of background studies for so many employees? Why did they remain open after surveillance was finished in May of 2014? Questions remain.”
In another 2015 story about international money transfers by Somalis, it wrote: “But without a secure and stable government, there is absolutely no way to ensure the money doesn’t end up in the wrong hands. If the Congress members get their way, then it’s fair for Minnesota taxpayers to question whether their money, via welfare cash assistance programs, is being sent overseas.”
In neither piece did they answer the questions they raised. Nor did they present evidence that money transfers “wound up in the wrong hands.” They simply incepted an idea: Somalis fund terrorism with welfare.
“When I look at Alpha News, it’s really hard to tell if it’s a newspaper morphing into a partisan organization, or a partisan organization using a news outlet as a front,” says David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. “The lines are pretty blurred at this point.”
Or as Kharam wrote in 2017: “While theologians typically deal in the realm of truth, political consultants such as myself typically deal in the realm of power.” He did not respond to multiple interview requests.
The True Believer
John Hinderaker has been on the Freedom Club’s board since at least 2013, but was well known in conservative circles for a decade prior thanks to Power Line, the blog he co-founded.
Unlike Alpha, Power Line makes no pretense of objectivity, featuring “commentary on the news from a conservative perspective.” Its pedigree is impressive. Regular contributors have written for the Weekly Standard, the New York Times, and lectured at Berkeley and Pepperdine.
Hinderaker was a partner at the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm until 2015, while churning out essays on subjects ranging from liberal bias in the media to his theories about Franklin Roosevelt. “I’ve always known that Roosevelt gave away the store to Stalin at Yalta, and have suspected him of being a Communist sympathizer,” he wrote in 2013.
He’s also displayed a pattern of animosity toward Muslims.
“Dearborn, Michigan, is home to a substantial Muslim population, and there is strong evidence that local authorities now enforce sharia [law] in preference to the Constitution of the United States,” he wrote in the 2010 piece, “Sharia comes to Michigan.”
“Does Islam have something to offer other than crazed, sadistic violence, committed to perpetuate the crudest forms of ignorance?” he added in a 2013 story. “If so, I haven’t seen it.”
Today, Hinderaker runs the Center of the American Experiment, a sizable Minnesota think tank with 14 staffers and an annual budget of more than $1.5 million, according to nonprofit tax disclosures.
The center skewed center-right for most of its existence. Founder Mitch Pearlstein said his goal was to avoid polarizing issues like abortion and focus on broader economic issues. One early conference was titled “Freeing the Free Market: Making Minnesota the World’s Newest Capitalist State.”
These days, the center appears to be more hard-right advocate than conventional think tank. It buys billboards bent on undermining wind energy and encouraging teachers to opt out of paying union dues. Its research often reaches conclusions favored by corporate interests. Hinderaker has spoken at several seminars hosted by the Koch brothers.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the center’s rightward slide better than its annual dinner. In the ’90s, mainstream figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Colin Powell, and Mikhail Gorbachev keynoted the event. Last year, it was Fox News firebrand Tucker Carlson, who recently called America’s white supremacy problem a “hoax.”
When Hinderaker took over as president and CEO, his hiring was approved by a board that included vice presidents from such notable companies as General Mills. A profile in the center’s quarterly magazine praised his blog: “Power Line remains a premier website for political commentary.”
In the piece, Hinderaker downplayed the fringe ideas of Power Line writers. “The views we advocate are mainstream, in most cases quite moderate,” he said. He did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Wages of Fear
Mohamed Omar (no relation to U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar) is the executive director of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington. He has suffered the consequences of fear-mongering directed at Muslims. “It’s human nature,” he says. “Everybody, they are not hateful but afraid. Unknown things feel like a threat. A few groups of people are trying to galvanize that.”
Since 2015, neighbor Sally Ness has maintained the blog 5 Years of Collecting Data. She’s cataloged hundreds of complaints about Dar Al-Farooq: rolling stops, illegal parking, and assemblies held later than the community center anticipated in its 2011 zoning application.
“What is ok with bike riding at 4am, amplification after 10pm, and a dark parking lot?” she asked in a post last November, arguing that Bloomington should revoke the mosque’s permit. (She did not respond to interview requests.)
Three years ago, several men who attended Dar Al-Farooq were convicted of attempting to join ISIS. The mosque became a frequent demon in right-wing blogs, which increasingly followed Ness’ litany of complaints as proof of an ISIS invasion.
In 2016, Alpha News published a lengthy piece repeating Ness’ allegations. The article said residents “fear for their personal safety” when using a nearby park.
A year later, three members of the Patriot Freedom Fighters militia drove from Clarence, Illinois, to throw a fire-bomb through Dar Al-Farooq’s window, say federal prosecutors. Omar was in the next room when it exploded.
Minnesota’s conservative media were quick to hint of a false-flag conspiracy. “Bloomington Mosque Bombing: Hoax, Inside Job Or The Same Thing?” was the headline of an Alpha News story by John Gilmore.
When police confirmed the bombing was a right-wing terrorist attack, Gilmore alleged that fake hate crimes were “legion” and that he, too, was a victim. “Let’s be plain about what’s going on here: the Regressive Left in Minnesota, in and out of media, are trying to silence those of us who are noticing what is going on.”
Sites like Alpha News are not responsible for terrorism. Yet, says Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a national media think tank, they should consider how their charged language plays to the outer world.
“We have an ethical as well as a legal responsibility for what we do,” says Tompkins. “Sometimes they’re the same, but often they’re different. The law tells you what you can do. Ethics tells you what you should do.”
Schultz, the Hamline professor, agrees: “McDonald’s and Coke understand that you can convince people to drink Coca-Cola and eat a cheeseburger. Media services or outlets that push routine, anti-Muslim sentiment can similarly be successful in influencing people’s behavior.”
Chip Berlet calls this kind of influence “scripted violence.” He’s a journalist and sociologist who has studied right-wing populism and extremism for decades. His work has appeared in publications ranging from the New York Times to scholarly titles such as Research in Political Sociology.
In the past, Berlet says, Jews and Catholics, Italians and Poles have all been targeted. Today it’s Muslims, Latinos, Somalis. No matter the target, he notes, the language is remarkably similar: They’re not like us; they’ll never integrate into our society; we have to stop them.
“If you denounce a group long enough and often enough, someone will go out and attack them,” Berlet says. “When they shoot up a synagogue or a mosque, they have a narrative where they’re the hero.”
Though the Dar Al-Farooq bombing is a worst-case scenario, Muslims must bear the smaller, day-to-day insecurities caused by the hate-mongering. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison describes those in one word: fear.
Ellison says that Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian immigrants tell him they think of returning to their home countries, afraid the U.S. is unsafe. “I mean, think about that,” Ellison says. “You’re a Syrian Muslim and you’re thinking about going back to Syria because you think the United States is dangerous for Muslims.”
Ellison has been a target since 2006, when Power Line first alleged that he was a Muslim extremist. As recently as 2018, the site repeated its most frequent allegation, calling him “a long-time apostle of hate on behalf of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.”
The Nation is categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Ellison did associate with them in the ’90s. But he also apologized for that association and disavowed Farrakhan more than a decade ago.
Somali-American Libertarian-Republican Muslim
Abdi Mohamed was raised on the east side of St. Paul and is Somali, Muslim, libertarian, and Republican. “I own a few American flag hats, just to kind of mess with my friends,” he says.
Mohamed is stubborn, recoiling from the pressure he felt as a black man to be liberal. “I’m socially conservative, coming from my faith-based background. But I’m also a live-and-let-live kind of guy, so that’s where my libertarian views come from.”
He got involved in Republican politics after David Sina, an east metro party official, shared a Facebook post alleging that Muslims would use caucuses to spread sharia law, and encouraged Republicans to turn out to “keep American Law and only American Law.”
Mohamed works to oppose Islamophobic resolutions at caucuses and reach out to Republican groups, hoping to build bridges.
At times, he is hopeful. At one convention, before he could speak against a resolution outlawing sharia in public schools (religious education is already outlawed there), 10 others rose to speak against it.
At other times, he sees the depths of the paranoia. After speaking to a Tea Party group in Bloomington, he walked outside to find the neighborhood littered with pamphlets about coming holy wars between Christianity and Islam.
Mohamed knows a non-practicing Muslim from Senegal who has been involved with the MNGOP since 2009. The man told him that “four or five years ago, there was none of this sharia fear-mongering.” But it has since “become rampant.”
Zavier Bicott is a carpenter and chairman of both Minnesota’s Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC) and Senate District 50, which includes Dar Al-Farooq. Partly in response to the bombing, and partly to reach out to people frequently ignored by Republicans, he decided to hold the RLC caucus at Dar Al-Farooq last year. “We knew there was going to be some controversy, but I wasn’t afraid of that,” he says.
Bicott invited Mohamed to speak. Both men say the event was successful, though only about 40 people showed up. Bicott was hoping for twice that.
Then came the backlash. One right-wing blog, Deplorable Housewives of the Midwest, excoriated Dar Al-Farooq, Islam, and Bicott in a post titled, “Only Submissive Women Need Apply.”
“Will there be two categories of women within the Republican party?” it asked. “Christian women who not only enjoy but demand equality, and the hijab-donning, second-class Islamic women?”
Deplorable Housewives routinely calls Islam a threat to human civilization. It was founded by Donna Azarian and Andrea Mayer-Bruestle, two former Alpha News writers, and by Susan Richardson, who served with Robert Cummins on Ted Cruz’s Minnesota Leadership Team during the 2016 presidential primary.
Business records filed with the Minnesota Secretary of State show the blog has 3,000 shares of privately held stock, but the site doesn’t disclose information about its financial backers. Writers’ contact information is not made public, and City Pages’ interview requests sent to a generic “contact us” address went unanswered.
Mohamed said he isn’t concerned with money in politics, save for the shadowy funding that stirs animus for his people. “I really am fearful of some of those nefarious players in the background who are pushing for that discontent and divisiveness.”
Yet he is also proof of Muslims’ ability to assimilate. He has since left the GOP for a nonpartisan occupation as a small business reporter.
Often, Islamophobia is framed as a campaign to divide Muslims from their neighbors. Yet Mohamed Omar and Abdi Mohamed both believe it won’t work.
“This is what they’ve done before,” Omar says. “When the Jewish came—Irish, Italians, Catholics—anytime a new group came, the people who came before tried to stop them.” All six of his children were born in Minnesota.
Mohamed echoes this sentiment. “We’re already a staple of Minnesota, we’re a part of this nation, we’re holding elected office around this country. So I feel discontented that there are people trying to uproot us from the American fabric, from being contributors to this nation.”