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Has fear of Muslims gone mainstream for Minnesota Republicans?

Views on Muslims that just a few years ago would’ve drawn rebuke from party leaders are increasingly tolerated — if not outright endorsed.

Heated campaign rhetoric about Muslim refugees and controversies like GOP officials publicly warning that Muslims may “infiltrate” the Minnesota caucuses, has confirmed, for some, that Islamophobia is increasingly part of the Republican Party mainstream.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

The Chisago County GOP Dinner on Sept. 28 in Forest Lake featured, for the most part, a roster of notables typical for a party gathering during a busy election season: Present were the two Republican candidates for U.S. Senate, state Sen. Karin Housley and state Rep. Jim Newberger; the candidate for the 8th Congressional District, Pete Stauber; and the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, Donna Bergstrom, along with several down-ballot candidates.

The evening’s keynote speaker was Chris Gaubatz, a man who brands himself as a “national security consultant, speaker, and conservative political activist” who “trains law enforcement on the severity and dangers of the jihadi network in the U.S.” Over turkey breast and green beans almondine, attendees listened to Gaubatz make inflammatory comments about Muslim-American organizations and refugees from Muslim countries, according to a recording taken from the event.

Gaubatz told the crowd that members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a leading Muslim advocacy group, consisted of “suit-wearing jihadis” whose ideology was indistinguishable from that of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. He suggested the refugee resettlement program was a way for terrorists to infiltrate the U.S., and alluded to a conspiracy theory he has explored online, which argues that radical Muslims had something to do with the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas.

“I’m traveling all over this state and people are concerned about the refugee resettlement issue,” Gaubatz said to the attendees. He explained that one of the Republican Party’s problems is that its candidates do not make a “clear enough distinction” on the refugee issue in important political races.

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“This is the one issue that for those particularly in very tight races or even those that are behind, in particular races, you start bringing this up and I promise you, the media will slam you, they will call you an Islamophobe, they will call you every name in the book, but the people sitting at home watching it will go ‘Yes, finally somebody’s saying something,’” he said. “So for independents, and for Republicans and Republican-leaning voters, this is a winning issue right now.”

The proximity of activists like Gaubatz to top Republican figures, combined with heated campaign rhetoric about Muslim refugees and controversies like GOP officials publicly warning that Muslims may “infiltrate” the Minnesota caucuses, has confirmed, for some, that Islamophobia is increasingly part of the Republican Party mainstream. And, as Gaubatz’s comments underscore in stark relief, stoking fear about Muslims in the era of Donald Trump might be a more potent political strategy than ever.

Losing ground to ‘trolls’

Before Gaubatz got up to speak at the Chisago County dinner, Bergstrom, who is governor candidate Jeff Johnson’s running mate, introduced him: “I know our keynote speaker and he is phenomenal, and I want to give him all the time that I can,” she said. “I crossed paths with Chris since 2016, so I think you’re all going to be riveted.”

That impression was shared on social media after Gaubatz wrapped up his remarks: Bergstrom posted on Facebook that it is a “riveting evening when Chris Gaubatz, National Security consultant, is your keynote speaker!” Newberger, who is challenging DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar, said Gaubatz “delivered a powerful message.”

A spokesperson for the Republican Party of Minnesota, Rachael Grooms, said Jennifer Carnahan, the chair of the party, was present at the Chisago County GOP dinner but left prior to the keynote speech due to a scheduling conflict.

“She was not in attendance for and cannot comment on the content of that speech,” Grooms said. “However, Chair Carnahan believes there is no room for racism or Islamophobia in the Republican Party of Minnesota. She continues to work in support of our great candidates to promote a message of safety and prosperity for all Minnesotans.” (The Stauber campaign declined to comment on the Chisago County dinner; the Housley campaign did not respond to request for comment.)

Chris Gaubatz
Chris Gaubatz
Gaubatz is a well-known figure in anti-Muslim circles, often partnering with other activists to travel around the country and deliver lectures on the threats supposedly posed by Muslims to American culture and security. (He once went undercover as an intern for CAIR, and stole thousands of documents related to the operation of the group, which he and other critics have long argued is linked to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.)

He has worked with the national group ACT For America, which is a prominent anti-Muslim organization, according to Robert McKenzie, who tracks Islamophobia in the U.S. at the New America Foundation, a D.C. think tank.

McKenzie told MinnPost that this group has aggressively worked to get its message in front of Republican officials around the country. “It’s one of the most effective in trying to bring in more mainstream politicians, and they’re pretty toxic,” he said. “They’re pretty good at this, also.”

A widely reported example of the mainstreaming of Islamophobia in Minnesota was a controversy in January 2018, in which two Republican officials warned on Facebook that Muslims were “mobilizing to infiltrate our Republican caucuses” in February, using as evidence a caucus training — a routine event for a variety of interest groups — taking place at a mosque.

The two Republicans who shared the meme, state Rep. Cindy Pugh of Chanhassen and 4th District GOP Chair Dave Sina, were met with widespread public rebukes — including from within the GOP. In a tweet, Bryan Strawser, a pro-gun activist in Minnesota, lamented “this sort of Islamophobia” coming from some in the party.

To Asad Zaman, an imam who is the executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, the social media warning about Muslims and the caucuses marked a stark turning point in the political environment this year. (Zaman was a delegate to the Democratic National Comvention in 2016, supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders.)

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“We found people in the past didn’t like Muslims but did not attack us too much about these things,” Zaman told MinnPost. “Nowadays, just about everything we do is subject, at least online, to trolls… Incidents of hate messages in the last 12 months have skyrocketed, more than 1,000 percent.” (Right-wing commentators have long argued that the MAS is the U.S. branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.)

Zaman read aloud some comments left on a video posted to the MAS Facebook page, in which the imam gives a religious lecture. “You make me sick,” one commenter said.

“All sounds nice and logical and peaceful. Until you tell them you have no intention of bowing to Islam. Then they come for your head. Sorry pal, I’ll keep my guns and ammo close,” another commenter said. A commenter responded to that simply: “Lock and load.”

Refugees and ‘Sharia law’

The creep of Islamophobia, Muslim advocates and other Minnesotans say, is evident on a more subtle level, with Republican candidates’ increasing attacks on the refugee resettlement program. Some Republicans link refugees moving to Minnesota with terrorism, as well as to the notion that Islamic “sharia law” — an ill-defined concept that has nevertheless become central to fears over assimilation — will take root in the U.S., threatening or even supplanting the American way of life.

On his campaign website, for example, Newberger calls the refugee resettlement program a “fast track citizenship program for hundreds of thousands of people who are poorly vetted and do not have any intention of adopting American Law.” (As of July, there were roughly 20 million refugees globally; in 2017, the U.S. resettled 33,000 of them, its smallest number since 2001.)

“There is only one thing that makes us Americans,” Newberger’s statement reads. “It’s that we all agree to live under the same law, i.e. the Constitution. Once we lose that, we lose our country.” The sharia concern is voiced at the highest level of the party: the Republican National Committee’s survey, which asks conservatives what they think on key issues, now asks if the respondent is concerned about “the potential spread of Sharia law.”

Higher-profile Republicans, such as Jeff Johnson and 1st District candidate Jim Hagedorn, have focused on criticizing the refugee program as financially unsustainable and unsafe from a national-security perspective. Johnson formally endorsed stopping refugee resettlement in July; Hagedorn did so way back in 2015, during his last run for Congress and even before Trump himself advocated that position.

Citing incidents of violence carried out in Minnesota — such as the 2016 knife attack in which a 20-year old Somali-American stabbed 10 people at a St. Cloud mall — these Republicans cast their opposition to refugee resettlement as common sense. Democrats, such as state Rep. Erin Murphy, see it differently; at a panel at St. Cloud State on Tuesday focusing on the rise of Islamophobia, she said “When we hear a candidate talk about ending any refugee resettlement, we know what that is about.”

According to JaNaé Bates, director of Faith in Minnesota, the progressive interfaith advocacy group that hosted the St. Cloud State panel on Islamophobia, Republican political figures are manipulating Minnesotans’ fears to stoke resentment of Muslims.

“What we’re finding is that there are a few politicians who are seeing this to be a short-term way to win, because people do have anxieties and people are dealing with a number of different crises in their life,” she said. Muslims, Bates argued, are an “easy target” to be scapegoated and to keep people divided while wealthy conservatives successfully push their policy agenda.

‘How do you push back against the President?’

According to Muslim advocates and experts on Islamophobia, anti-Muslim activity is undoubtedly on the rise in the 2018 elections, with that activity overwhelmingly coming from Republicans.

Robert McCaw, director of government affairs for CAIR in Washington, says they are noticing a marked increase. “We are mainly seeing anti-Muslim rhetoric in this election coming from Republican candidates at all levels, local, state, and federal elections,” he said. “That’s not to say all Republicans engage in Islamophobia, but what we’re seeing is mostly from Republican candidates for office.”

The New America Foundation’s McKenzie says that his project to track incidents of Islamophobia was born out of a desire to have an independent, nonpartisan organization researching the trend.

“We proactively looked for comments by Democrats,” he said. “We wanted to find officials who are Democrats who are saying this stuff. The vast majority is coming from Republicans. We’re not stepping on the scale at all.”

For many, the rise of Trump — who has a long record of Islamophobic comments and has suggested repeatedly that Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim — has supercharged the Islamophobia that once floated at the far edges of the Republican Party. New America’s database of anti-Muslim incidents catalogues that trend; publicly-released reports from CAIR have as well.

“In the past, I think Republican leadership could push back on this,” McKenzie said, citing a controversy from 2012 in which former Rep. Michele Bachmann and others were reprimanded by then-Speaker John Boehner and then-Sen. John McCain for calling for an investigation into supposed Muslim Brotherhood “infiltration” of the government.

With the president of the U.S. now more in line with Bachmann than Boehner, McKenzie says, it has become much harder for many Republicans to denounce Islamophobic rhetoric, because the president has so effectively raised fears about Muslims within the Republican base.

“You need to have a local, state, or federal elected official who’s willing to publicly stand up to the president, who has a lot of support in many of their districts and states — that makes it super hard for people who even think it’s off the range,” he said. “How do you push back against the President?”

What it means for the election

But Trump’s electoral success demonstrated that echoing his language on Muslims could prove a winning political strategy. Steven Schier, a professor of politics at Carleton College, said that rhetoric surrounding issues like the refugee program has proven a useful dog-whistle for Republican candidates.

“You don’t have to make explicit anti-Muslim statements in order to appeal to people with such an orientation,” he said. “Obviously, immigration is a hot issue and Republicans are talking all about it. They frame it in terms of law and order; what that does is cast suspicion on immigrant groups by implication.”

Schier cautioned, though, that not everyone can get away with Trump-style rhetoric. “He did lose the popular vote. He has yet to crack 50 percent job approval. All these things matter,” he said.

“I believe that the people of Minnesota will reject the politics of hate and division,” Zaman of MAS said. “I believe that, after a few losses, the Republican Party will understand that hate is not a formula for winning.”

Some, like CAIR’s McCaw, are seeing a silver lining to the rise in Islamophobia in politics: a rise in Muslim-American candidates running for office. More than 100 Muslim candidates filed to run for statewide or federal office this year, the largest number since 2001. At one point in the 2018 election cycle, as many as 15 Muslim candidates were running for office in Minnesota.

In Minnesota, state Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American, is likely to be the next member of Congress in the 5th Congressional District; in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, Palestinian-American state legislator Rashida Tlaib is also likely to join Omar in Congress. If elected, they would be the first Muslim women in Congress.

McCaw says Islamophobia has “ignited a fire” among some in the American Muslim community “They are ready to stand in the spotlight, withstand public criticism from anti-Muslim detractors, and run for office representing the best interests not only of fellow Muslim community members, but ready to work on behalf of the entire community.”