WashPost Hypes North Dakota Arson As Sign of Trump-Driven Islamophobia

Wednesday’s Washington Post front page carried a story headlined “For Muslims and neighbors, the fear sets in.” Online, it’s more political: "Trump’s effect on Muslim migrant debate reverberates in heartland.”

Political reporter Robert Samuels – the same guy who wrote that Ben Carson ruined his image among blacks by going Republican – heavily implied an arson at a Somali restaurant in Grand Forks, North Dakota was caused by Donald Trump’s rhetoric.

The fire, which erupted when someone tossed a 40-ounce Bud Light bottle filled with gasoline into the restaurant, happened hours after Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

The Grand Forks Herald also connected those dots with gusto earlier in the month:

The blaze occurred against the backdrop of Republican presidential candidate and frontrunner Donald Trump proposing to bar Muslims from entering the country, which political commentators say echoes of 1930s Nazi Germany and is contrary to American values and the constitutional right to religious freedom.

The mayor of Grand Forks, Michael Brown, told the Herald today that he felt “misrepresented” by the Post, that Samuels the reporter prodded him into saying something on deporting the Muslims he now regrets:

Brown's quotes come midway through the article. "People here are a little scared of them," Brown is quoted as saying of the refugees.

His quote continues: "If you don't fully integrate, what do you do? I don't know. Maybe you deport them."

Asked what he meant, Brown said he didn't recall speaking the words. He said if the Post had printed them, he must have done so and suggested he likely said the quote during a phone interview with Samuels.

"I said, as a community, we have expectations," Brown told the Herald. "We expect people to come here, we expect people to go to school, we expect them to graduate, we expect them to feed and clothe their families and we expect them to obey the law, ... and then he kept pushing: What if this doesn't work out? What if that doesn't work out? What if this doesn't work out? Should we deport them?

"It had been push, push, push ... what if this doesn't work, and then it was like, well, maybe deport. But it wouldn't be my first choice because I have no power for that."

Brown described his attendance at local events like cultural festivals and the Global Friends Coalition picnic, part of efforts to make the community seem welcoming. He also said he was the co-founder of the Immigrant Integration Initiative in the mid-2000s, a committee that "keeps the door open" between the immigrant community and the rest of Grand Forks.

"Deport's not in my lexicon, and it's not in my power," he said. "As mayor, my job is to facilitate communication, build safety nets and facilitate the discussion."

Police charged 25-year-old Matthew William Gust with the arson at Juba Coffee and Restaurant, which caused $90,000 in damage. Gust has a criminal record that "includes convictions for terrorizing and simple assault, both Class C felonies, after he threatened to harm a clerk at Romantix, an adult entertainment store in Grand Forks, and punched a police officer in the eye in 2011, according to court records."

Samuels reported vandalism preceded the arson, leading to suspicions of a political cause:

A week before the fire struck Juba, the words “Go Home, Somalis” had been scrawled on the store’s exterior. The graffiti came with a symbol [an SS] that a stunned owner and his wife said they could not identify, until the police asked whether they knew what a Nazi was.

“They are telling us they don’t want us here anymore,” said Mohoud Yusuf, a 26-year-old engineering student at the University of North Dakota.

“I blame it on Donald Trump, to be honest,” said Saida Aden, 24, a first-year engineering student. “And the media. Anyone just thinks they can say anything or do anything they want. It’s like the country needs a bogeyman, and it has become us.”

While Samuels reported the views of Mayor Brown and some other locals lamenting the Somali resistance to learning English and assimilating, he never noted one reason for suspicion. Earlier in the year, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported 20 Somali-Americans from Minnesota left to join ISIS, and in April, six were charged with planning to join. That's no excuse for vandalism or arson, but if a reporter is describing a fear about Somali immigrants, that's a fact worth including.

Samuels ended on a sad and poetic note:

“I am happy they caught someone,” said Moallin, exuding little emotion. As Moallin made his way out of the restaurant, he turned around one last time. The family’s American Dream had turned into a dark cavern, surrounded outside by a blanket of white snow.

“I just want to know why he did this,” he said, his eyes beginning to glaze. “Why? This place was beautiful.”

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis