New St. Paul police chief pledges to fight hate, ignorance ‘side by side’
The recent shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino didn’t help discourage the Islamophobia and anti-Muslim talk that has persisted in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001. Islam has existed for centuries. It is a religion “misused” by those who commit violent acts “for their own personal cause” whether in the U.S. or worldwide, stressed Mahmud Kanyale, the master of ceremonies at the June 18 Ramadan/Iftar dinner and open house at Al-Ihsan Islamic Center (AIC) in St. Paul.
Kanyale, AIC’s media and public relations representative, invited the local media to the fourth annual event, but the MSR was the only press in attendance at the two-hour-plus gathering. He told the mixed audience of Muslims and non-Muslims, including civic and state officials, “This is a building relationship event. We hope to continue it.”
AIC, which opened in 2007 and moved to its present 22,000-square-foot former warehouse location in 2009, holds religious classes, marriage and family counseling, and youth programming. Iftar is the evening meal served at the end of the day during Ramadan, which this year began the evening of June 5 and ends the evening of July 5. This is a holy time of fasting and prayer in which Muslims don’t eat, drink or smoke and abstain from sexual relations from sunrise to sunset.
The Center’s mission is not only to teach Islam but also to help dispel existing misconceptions, explains Imam Mohamed Mursal. “What happened in San Bernardino and Orlando does not represent Islam. We equally condemn individuals of any creed or color who uses such isolated incident[s] to besmirch the name of millions of law-abiding followers of Islam,” said Mursal.
During the event there was a PowerPoint presentation of Islam history, and a group of female students performed spoken word pieces. New St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell and State Rep. Rena Moran were among several persons honored by AIC during the pre-meal portion of the event.
“I am your police chief,” said Axtell, telling the audience that he first began working with AIC as a patrolman in 2007. “We are here, side by side, to fight the ignorance that comes from certain segments of the community. That will not change,” he pledged.
Axtell afterwards told the MSR that he is concerned that “an entire religion” is being attacked. “Everything I have learned about Islam is that it is a religion of peace. Every experience I have had in my career with every Muslim person has been peaceful.”
He said he appreciated the award from AIC, his first as police chief. “It is an incredible honor coming from Imam Mursal and his organization,” noted Axtell.
“Right now there are a lot of ignorant people that want to hate in a mad rush because of the actions of a very few,” continued the new chief, who was sworn in June 23. “Whether you are a police officer or a citizen who wants to do the right thing, we, as an entire diverse community, cannot and will not tolerate [this].”
“Diversity is our strength,” said Moran. AIC is in her District 65A. “I take it personally” whenever a Muslim brother or sister is attacked, she said. “Hate has no place in 65A or has no place in this state.”
Fedha Abera spoke for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who was unable to attend. Abera, the city’s constituent outreach coordinator, told the MSR after his brief remarks, “Moments like Orlando [are] being sensationalized in the media. Overall, I believe most people aren’t fearful of what is going on as some might think.”
Moran told us afterwards that it is important for AIC “to open up their doors to us so that we don’t live in fear.” Besides the Orlando shooting, she also expressed concerns about the “meanness rhetoric” being said and heard during this year’s presidential campaign.
“That is my greatest fear,” that things might get worse as a result, Moran said. “As a state representative, my job and my hope are to always fight for equity and justice.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.