On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department recognized Minneapolis resident Mohamed Ahmed as the 2020 recipient of its Citizen Diplomacy Award.
Ahmed created Average Mohamed, an anti-extremism cartoon, to counter propaganda from ISIS, al-Shabaab, and other terrorist groups in 2014. At the time, recruiters were trying to convince Somali-American teens to abandon their families and fight abroad. Average Mohamed videos aimed to correct misconceptions about Islam, and promote democracy over theocracy.
Since then, Ahmed has created more than a dozen videos (mostly in English, with some available in Somali and Swahili) addressing a variety of topics, sometimes in response to specific world events.
“We’re so grateful Mr. Ahmed brought his talents to America,” said Aaron Ringel, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Global Public Affairs, during the awards ceremony on Wednesday. “I can tell you Mr. Ahmed is many things, but he is in no way average.”
Over the past six years, Ahmed has spoken to 60,000 kids. Through Global Minnesota – an international diplomacy organization – he’s spread his story to clergy, activists, and government officials from Africa and the Middle East.
“These are points of contact, which they take back to their communities, and they speak to millions,” Ahmed said. “When we go out and speak to people, kids, or we go out and speak to media, and we go out and speak to international leadership people, they understand that it’s on this basis, we're engaging them: life, liberty, opportunity, freedom. You will find all this in secular democracy, which beats theocracy, which beats communism, which beats dictatorship.”
Ahmed also put Ringel on the spot, challenging the State Department to support Average Mohamed with resources that go beyond awards.
He used to talk to local schools. COVID-19 shut that down. During social distancing, kids are spending more time online than ever, he says. As Facebook and YouTube have increased efforts to take down extremist videos, recruiters have taken to playing video games with teenagers.
Despite the ever-present need to fight extremists on a philosophical level, Ahmed says he’s hard-pressed for funds to keep Average Mohamed going. It’s a bare-bones mom-and-pop operation. Foundations tell him to ask the government for resources, but he says the government is reluctant to fund civilian counter-extremism projects.
“The government doesn’t understand that if they defeat the ideology, they defeat the enemy completely. They’re still comfortable with the tools they have, surveillance mechanisms,” he says. “We don't have any resources to speak of, even though we're getting all these accolades.”
Ahmed is currently seeking volunteers to help with fundraising and grant writing.