Mohamed Ahmed, average guy? Maybe - but this Muslim gas station manager is taking on ISIS anyway
MINNEAPOLIS - Mohamed Ahmed wants you to think he's perfectly ordinary. In a lot of ways, he is. He's a married, middle-aged man with four kids. He dropped out of college. He spends his days managing a gas station in Minneapolis and his nights ho...
MINNEAPOLIS - Mohamed Ahmed wants you to think he’s perfectly ordinary.
In a lot of ways, he is. He’s a married, middle-aged man with four kids. He dropped out of college. He spends his days managing a gas station in Minneapolis and his nights hounding his kids about homework. He loves the Mall of America and “The Simpsons.”
But then there is the glaring example of how he’s not. The Somali-American Minneapolis resident is trying to stand up to the Islamic State group, often from a cigar shop in St. Paul, armed with only a computer and his ideas.
“It takes an idea to defeat an idea. You can’t bomb it out. You can’t shoot it out.” - Mohamed Ahmed
The shop is where Ahmed, 40, does most of his brainstorming for Average Mohamed, the online campaign he launched four years ago to combat the recruitment efforts of Islamic extremists with bite-size “counternarrative” cartoons he creates and posts on his website and on YouTube.
His work has been covered by news organizations across the country, including USA Today, the New York Times and Huffington Post.
While the amount of time and money he’s invested in the project point to at least a few degrees of separation from average, Ahmed says he chose the name Average Mohamed to help others in the local Somali community and Muslims worldwide realize they don’t need special credentials to get involved in the fight against ISIS.
“We are living in a First World nation, a great nation, and it upsets me that (a few) people are willing to leave this and pick up a gun and go kill other people,” Ahmed said recently from a coffee shop in Minneapolis. “It’s imperative we Muslims do something beyond just condemning. … We need to take action. … I want people to see what (I’m doing) and say, ‘Look, he is the guy who serves coffee at the gas station … ordinary as dirt … and he is doing this. … So what can I do?’”
For his part, the polished public speaker has homed in on the spread of ideas, using his cartoons to try to reach 8- to 16-year-old Muslim boys and girls in the United States with his anti-extremism message. The hope is to get to them before the tiny number vulnerable to radicalization encounter the Islamic State’s propaganda instead.
Some 70 people have been arrested in the U.S. since March 2014 on charges related to aiding the Islamic State group - 56 this year - including six young Somali-American men from Minnesota charged in April.
Authorities say the couple responsible for the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., had been radicalized. The Paris terrorist attacks last month were carried out by individuals working on behalf of ISIS.
Both tragedies reinforce the importance of Ahmed’s mission, he said.
“It takes an idea to defeat an idea. You can’t bomb it out. You can’t shoot it out,” he said of his work. “My goal is to indoctrinate the youth before the (radicalization) process starts, to give them three or four issues they can stand on when the recruiter comes.”
Asked about GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent suggestion that America temporarily bar Muslims from entering the U.S., Ahmed, a Republican, said Trump’s statements do not reflect the country he’s called home for close to two decades.
“A leader serves all people irrespective of their religion, sexual orientation or color. Our constitution is designed to empower … individual Americans with freedoms that are inalienable. That is why America is the greatest country in the world. Lumping all of Islam with extremism is a disservice to intellect, humanity and American freedoms. We are proud Americans; we love our country. But what (Trump is) proposing is second-class rights for American Muslims.”
Unusual means to an important end
It’s not lost on Ahmed that cartoons seem like an unusual medium to use against a terrorist organization known for brutal violence.
But he said cartoons pack a punch. They have broad appeal, are cheap to produce - about $1,000 a pop - and allow him to tackle a lot of material quickly. Most videos are less than two minutes.
With titles such as “The Bullet or the Ballot” and “A Muslim in the West,” his roughly 20 cartoons attempt to expose ways extremists twist teachings of the Quran to serve their own agenda, while simultaneously reinforcing the core tenets of Islam, a religion of peace, Ahmed said.
One cartoon tackles identity and shows Average Mohamed - the central figure in each video - talking with a kid who says he feels “mixed up sometimes” about whether he should identify with the part of himself that is black, African, Muslim, American or Somali.
Average Mohamed, to whom Ahmed lends his own voice, tells him he does not have to choose.
“Don’t let the extremists confuse you,” he says in the cartoon. “They say a Muslim has to reject all identities except the one they try to define for you. But they do not know you, and that is not Islam. Islam is many things, all colors, all races, all nationalities. Islam accepts them all and tells us to live in harmony and peace.”
“We try and lay it out for the youth in a way nobody else is,” Ahmed explained. “We say, ‘This is what suicide bombers believe, and here is why that’s bad; this is what we believe.’”
After researching content for each video, he has the concepts vetted by a local imam. Then he sends his storyboards to a cartoonist in Southeast Asia who does the animation.
Aside from a small grant from a London organization last year and some private donations, Ahmed has so far largely funded the project on his own. He estimates he’s spent tens of thousands on the venture, a figure that troubles his wife, who is also concerned about threats commenters occasionally make online about his work.
He doesn’t see himself getting scared away from it, though.
A proud citizen of the United States with a deep respect for its freedoms, he says he is compelled to do it as an American and as a Muslim.
“I am duty-bound,” he said.
His cartoons are reaching a growing audience, Ahmed said, noting that Google Analytics indicate his last five garnered more than 100,000 views combined.
He speculates part of his success is due to his insider status as a Muslim.
“We are talking to Muslims; we are not talking at Muslims,” Ahmed said. “When someone comes from outside the religion and says believe in this, don’t believe in that … there is a moralistic high-horse attitude that is harming the effort.”
His campaign took a step forward last year when he formed a nonprofit and a board of directors. He has since started visiting area schools with his message.
Erroll Southers, director of homegrown violent extremism studies at the University of Southern California and a former FBI agent, sits on Ahmed’s Average Mohamed board, as does former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and four others.
Southers said his colleague’s work is unique in that it targets young kids with a medium as relatable as “SpongeBob” and is available online, a key element considering the presence of extremists on social media.
“It’s sort of like teaching elementary children about fire safety and wearing seat belts. … To me, the idea behind this is no different,” Southers said. “It’s about prevention, and we hope they will never need it, but if they do, we have given them something to think about.”
Though the effectiveness of his work is difficult to measure, the “celebrity-like” status Ahmed has among some local kids is a good sign, Southers said.
Peg Mahon, a teacher at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, said you could have heard “a pin drop” when he spoke to her class last year.
When he returned a second time, she said, students lined up for his autograph.
“He is so dynamic and very well-educated and passionate … the kids were just awestruck,” Mahon said.
Despite the seriousness of his mission, Ahmed can’t stop grinning as he talks about the future of his work.
If he can keep cobbling together funding, which isn’t easy, the self-proclaimed optimist who arrived in Minnesota 14 years ago says he has plans to work with local kids on cartoons, develop a curriculum for classrooms and build an app.
Being around his children keeps him motivated, he said.
“We live in a hand-me-down-society … and I have to do my part in that,” he said. “I am so hopeful that they will live in a better world because I am willing to work on it.”
By Sarah Horner, St. Paul Pioneer Press