Usama Dakdok had appeared at a Rochester library. In anti-Muslim circles, he’s something of a minor celebrity, traveling a heartland circuit to proselytize about the evils of that “wicked cult.” His is a message of incendiary weirdness.
“The day will come and Muslim in America will have the upper hand, and they will kill your children for not eating what is liked,” he once said. “For not eating the lawful foods.”
Regina Mustafa wasn’t particularly bothered that a crackpot had come to town. Or that he’d claimed her people would someday launch a great massacre over dietary matters.
She’s the founder of Rochester’s Community Interfaith Dialogue on Islam, which preaches empathy among religions. Her job is to be understanding.
But she was slightly taken aback that state Rep. Cindy Pugh (R-Chanhassen) and Republican gubernatorial candidate Phillip Parrish attended the talk. If you’re among the tens of thousands of Muslims in Minnesota, you’d prefer public officials get info on your religion from someone other than a yammering fool.
So she sent polite letters to both, inviting them to sit down for a friendly chat.
“I do not object to you attending his presentation, but wanted to know if you would like to speak to a Muslim about Islam,” she wrote. “Since you have attended this talk about my faith, I figured you would also like to hear from a person who actually practices Islam.”
Pugh responded with radio silence. Parrish couldn’t resist engaging the enemy.
The rural Kenyon Republican is a former music teacher, school principal, and military intelligence officer with a Trumpian self-regard. “Phillip Parrish has always displayed a work ethic that has caused others to stand up and take notice,” reads the opening sentence of his campaign bio. He clearly fancies himself as a man of scholarship and letters.
“I have a very unusual in-depth level of training, experience, and understanding regarding multiple faiths and the practice of Islam,” he wrote Mustafa.
But before any sit-down, he wanted Mustafa to essentially denounce her religion. “I separate Islam from the word faith because faith takes belief and Islam requires only submission,” he wrote. “I will not participate in any faith dialog because Islam is ultimately not a faith.
“…I will be asking you if you are willing to publicly denounce Sharia and swear to adhere to, protect, comply with, accept, and defend the United States Constitution,” he added. “Sadly, if you are a ‘practicing Islamist’ you will most likely not agree to such a stance which is why the conversation will most likely end before it begins.”
For a gubernatorial candidate, it showed a disturbingly remedial understanding for one of the world’s largest religions. Muslims, after all, come in thousands of different stripes. And just like Christians, most don’t adhere to the more murderous aspects of their ancient texts. But since bagging on gays and Mexicans has lost its social cache, the hard right has increasingly turned to Islam as the latest, greatest threat to our way of life.
At the center of Parrish’s thesis is Sharia Law, the idea that Muslims are secretly plotting to overthrow the U.S. legal system, replacing it with the Quran. It’s a preposterous notion in which one must believe that Muslims, who compose just 1 percent of the U.S. population, can somehow subvert the wishes of a 70 percent Christian majority. Or that they’d even want to.
“I’ve never met one single Muslim who thinks about doing so,” says Mustafa.
Nonetheless, legislators in 42 states have introduced bills to halt the mythical offensive. It’s a move that combines the ease of fighting a non-existent foe while playing the hero to gullible voters. Parrish is making it a centerpiece of his campaign.
As dangerous strawmen go, Mustafa is severely lacking. She hosts a livestreamed religious forum at a Rochester library, in which she regularly invites guests of other faiths – or no faith at all. But she could no longer meet with Parrish.
“I sent him a very respectful email, inviting him to a very civil conversation,” she says. “He replied in such a demeaning, degrading, disrespectful manner.”
Instead, her group called for other candidates to urge Parrish to withdraw from the governor’s race.
It’s hard to see him doing so. His mission is fight the Islamic menace and “defend the men and women of this state who go to bed in fear every night. You have people threatening to kill people in the state of Minnesota,” he says. “You have people scared to death to go to school.”
At the same time, he’s incensed that anyone would infer he’s anti-Muslim. “I don’t use the word ‘Muslim’ anywhere in that email,” he says of his response to Mustafa, conveniently forgetting that he invoked the word “Islam” six times.
He’s not an easy interview. Questions rarely reach a few words before he interrupts to denounce the idea, the interviewer, or both.
Asked if he’s ever spent time with Muslims, his voice shifts to instant outrage. “Absolutely, for the last 19 years!” he sputters. Though he won’t say when or where. To answer seems to be beneath him.
His website is a bit more cogent. “We have enabled violent, abusive, and ill-intended people,” he writes. “Under my administration, Minnesotans will no longer fund jihadists through the exploitation of social programs. We will no longer train ill-intended people for nefarious and terrorist activities.”
Which means we can probably say goodbye to the Minnesota National Guard’s secret terrorist training centers.
It’s easy to dismiss Parrish as a kook. But in 2014, he ran for Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, making it through three rounds of convention balloting before finally bowing out. Four years later, the hard right is even more likely to see nut talk as synonymous with straight talk.
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