It’s graduation season. My Facebook feed is full of friends posting photos of relatives in caps and gowns, beaming with pride at having made it through school to achieve their diploma.
One photo in particular caught my eye: a group of smiling Somali young men, attired in black graduation garb with tassels on their caps getting their degrees at some large social hall. “Here are a bunch of Muslim American success stories,” I told myself, proud to see a new generation living out the American dream.
Then I looked more closely and my heart sank. These were newly-minted graduates of “Minnesota Islamic University“. They are not bootstrapping immigrants about to seize their future – they are victims of a great Salafi con game.
Founded by an Egyptian cleric a decade ago as a Wahabi outfit recruiting the next generation of American Salafis, the “university” has 160 enrolled students and offers everything from 2-year associate degrees all the way to full Ph.d’s. The institution boasts that it is accredited by Al Azhar and Khartoum’s Islamic University. Photos on its website seem to indicate it has an impressive main campus building.
Two important things to know about Egyptian Salafis: (1) They tend to have an obsession with academic titles and prestige, leading many to fake qualifications. (2) They have a notorious ability of “profit off the Prophet” – i.e., to turn “Islamic study” into a personal cash cow.
Take MIU’s President and Chancellor: Egypt-native Dr Waleed Al Maneesy. He was imported to the US in 1997 to become head imam of a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota. (Who sponsored him remains unclear.) He came to Minnesota after 9 years in Saudi Arabia, where he had not enrolled in any official institution of Islamic higher learning. Rather, he seems to networked with well-known Wahabi clerics who ultimately sanctioned him, and at least in one instance gave him an Ijaza (whether he qualifies as a true Alem or not is a matter of debate among believers). Saudi mosques often offer classes informally to whomever desires to learn, typically under the guidance of state-sanctioned clerics, who use the facilities as indoctrination centers for Wahabism.
Only after coming to the US did Al Maneesy beef up his academic credentials. He “earned” a Master’s degree from the American Open University — an online distance-learning Salafi outfit that deserves its own post. Then he received a “Ph.d in Islamic Jurisprudence” from the Graduate Theological Foundation, a Christian ecumenical institution – a distinction I highly doubt his fellow Salafis back in Egypt or Saudi would find particularly impressive.
Al Maneesy is basically a glorified Qur’an reciter. It seems unlikely he would be qualified to teach at either Al-Azhar or the University of Mohamed Ibn Saud.
But what he lacks in solid academic credentials Al Maneesy seems to make up in entrepreneurialism – or, some might say, swindling. With his dubious diplomas he has managed to assemble the appearance of a respectable academic institution. It has the impressive campus center image on its website (actually just an aspirational depiction of a future campus), descriptions of various degree programs, and elaborate graduation ceremonies complete with pomp and circumstance. Whether there is any depth behind this veneer of academic excellence is doubtful.
The reason my heart sank is that the beaming faces of the new Somali graduates of MIU suggest that they don’t realize they’ve been tricked. They may think they’ve made it: living the American dream while embracing their Muslim heritage. Instead they have earned useless diplomas and been brainwashed with Salafi propaganda with no connection to their Somali Muslim traditions.
MIU is preying on Somali youth – who are especially vulnerable given how many are affected by years of war, languishing in refugee camps, and then landing as immigrants in a foreign land. Wahabis seem to be taking advantage of well-meaning folks who are trying to connect with their faith to become clerics, community leaders, or simply learned Muslims. They are instead being indoctrinated into hardline Wahabbism, a extremist corruption of how their own parents and grandparents practiced Islam.
How much money have these graduates paid to Al Maneesy’s crew to be brainwashed and have their heritage hijacked?
Al Maneesy’s own mosque, the al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, is connected to at least 5 cases of radicalization involving Somali youth. Kids from the mosque ended up joining Somalia’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Shabab, or tried to join ISIS. Did Al Maneesy explicitly tell them to join terror groups? Who knows? But so many cases have come from right under his nose he must at least be planting the seeds. His failure to take responsibility for this happening under his watch ought to be a wake up call.
Should Al Maneesy be in charge of anything involving youth? I for one would not trust my kids’ education to him. And my heart aches for the Somali young men in graduating in Minnesota. They may think they have made it, but in reality they’ve been had.