HBO Drama Thrusts Minneapolis Somalis Into Unwanted Spotlight

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Somali-born Canadian rapper K'naan poses in New YorkREUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Timothy Mclaughlin

Oct 30 – An HBO television drama created by an Oscar-winning director and a Canadian-Somali rapper has infuriated many in Minnesota’s Somali community who say the show will perpetuate unfair stereotypes of Muslims.

Touted as a window into the lives of Somalis in Minneapolis adjusting to life in the U.S. Midwestern city, many community members instead fear “Mogadishu, Minnesota” will stoke Islamophobia if it airs. Filming on the pilot episode was scheduled to end last week.

At a time when opposition to immigrants and anti-Muslim sentiment have featured heavily in rhetoric by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Minnesota’s Somali community members, especially men, are worried the possible TV drama will brand them as potential terrorists.

“I’m completely against it,” Mahmoud Mire, 20, a first-generation Somali-American, said of the show. “As Muslims, as blacks and as refugees, people have their misconceptions about us already.”

Those feelings have been echoed by others in protests against the show. Somali residents in one Minneapolis housing complex voted earlier this month to block crews from filming in their building.

Even the involvement of Somalia’s best-known celebrity, Canadian-Somali rapper K’naan Warsame, as writer, director and executive director has not quelled mistrust. He is working with executive producer Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar as best director in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker.”

HBO officials declined to discuss the issues around the pilot other than to confirm the cast and provide a short synopsis, describing it as “a family drama that grapples with what it means to be American – among the Somalis of Minneapolis.”

The filming of a pilot does not ensure it will air or be made into a full series.

Somalis began to arrive in Minnesota’s Twin Cities in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fleeing a civil war in their Horn of Africa nation. There are around 39,000 living in the state of 5.5 million people, according to U.S. census data from 2014. That is up from around 32,000 in 2010.

Somali-Americans are particularly sensitive about how they are perceived after a trial earlier this year at which three young men from the community were convicted of trying to join Daesh. Six others pleaded guilty to supporting the militant group in a case that some in the community denounced as an example of government entrapment.

Then last month a 20-year-old Somali-American stabbed 10 people at a shopping mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota, before being fatally shot by an off-duty police officer. A Daesh-linked media outlet described the attacker as a “soldier” of the group.

“Anything that happens with Somalis, our community is thrown under the bus,” said Mubashir Jeilani, 21, a Somali-American from Minneapolis. He is executive director at the West Bank Community Coalition (WBCC) in the city’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, the hub for the area’s Somali community.

‘GREAT DISTRUST’

In the current environment, many Somali-Americans in Minnesota are leery of Hollywood storytellers.

“There is a great distrust between this community and the directors and producers in Hollywood,” said Jaylani Hussein, 34, who immigrated to Minneapolis from Somalia in the early 1990s when he was around 10 years old. He is now executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group.

Hussein decries movies such as “Captain Phillips” in 2013, which dramatizes an attack by Somali pirates on a U.S.-flagged cargo ship, and Ridley Scott’s 2001 film “Black Hawk Down” about a failed U.S. military mission in Mogadishu, for their portrayals of Somalis as pirates or terrorists.

“There are real consequences in the stories we tell,” he said.

EARLY CONCERNS

The backlash to “Mogadishu, Minnesota” started last year after early reports on the show, which the Hollywood Reporter said in December 2015 was titled “the Recruiters.”

The trade publication, quoting an unnamed source, described how the drama would “draw open an iron curtain behind which viewers will see the highly impenetrable world of Jihadi recruitment.”

The filming of the pilot is expected to have employed some 350 people and to have generated roughly $4 million in spending for the local economy, Minnesota officials said. But that failed to impress many in the local community.

In September, protesters objecting to the show interrupted a K’naan concert in Minneapolis and clashed with police.

K’naan has met several times with community members and local organizations to address their concerns. The WBCC’s Jeilani said K’naan assured him the show would portray the community as more than just a “hub for recruitment.”

K’naan could not be reached for comment. Last month he told a Somali journalist that the project was “pretty historic,” and that he had hired Somalis to work on the production in an effort to train a new generation of filmmakers.

While a local Somali city councilman has publicly backed the TV show, others say they remain skeptical due in part to Bigelow’s involvement, which brought considerable buzz in Hollywood.

“Kathryn Bigelow is notoriously known for being successful by projecting a very negative view of Muslims,” said CAIR’s Hussein.

Bigelow’s most successful films have centered on U.S. military operations in Muslim countries. “Zero Dark Thirty” in 2012 was about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, while “The Hurt Locker” depicted a bomb disposal team in Iraq.

Bigelow’s agent could not be reached for comment.

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