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Taking On The Appeal Of ISIS, With Cartoons

One Muslim man in Minnesota is on his own personal mission to undermine ISIS.

Mohamed Ahmed works as a gas station manager in Minneapolis. But he's dedicated much of his time to creating cartoons that explain Islam — and why ISIS is wrong.

He's the creator and voice of a cartoon character he calls Average Mohamed. For the past four years Ahmed has been producing these online cartoons to try to counter the ISIS message.

In Minnesota in particular, with its large Somali community, ISIS has had the most success in finding recruits. The state leads the country in the number of people seeking to join the terrorist group.

Ahmed, who came to the U.S. from Somalia 20 years ago, is betting that plain-speaking Average Mohamed can help stem the flow. He spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about why he's so dedicated to this cause.

Interview Highlights

On how he came up with the character

Well it's simple, I'm an average guy with four children, a wife ... and a mortgage. And what is it that the average people know that basically can help in this process? Because it is average people recruiting each other and becoming extremists. So we felt like it's the same way we need an average guy espousing the values of majority Muslims. So Average Mohamed was a no-brainer because Mohamed is the most common name in the world.

On the message and people's response

Well it's a counter-ideology. The whole platform is a counter-ideology platform. And the message is about the values: three principles. One is peace, second one is democracy and the third one is anti-extremism. So it is a way to talk to the youth without veils. And we try to connect with them. [We're getting an] enormous amount of support across faiths, gender, race.

On reaching the right people with the anti-extremist message

Well I've actually accomplished that. Where a kid comes up to me and says — like for example the concept of suicide bombing. They said, "Well suicide bombers go to heaven," I said, "No, go back to your teachings."

Who's got to be lying, is it the teachings of the prophet himself who's lying, or is it the teachings of Islamic State, al-Qaida and whoever these outfits are?

And it starts bothering them. These people are curious. Because I do outreach with the kids — I actually go to schools, mosques, madrasas. And the kids, they're looking at Syria. These are mostly Minnesota Sunni Muslims and they have a side they support. And they're wondering, how can we do something about that?

Well I tell them, "You don't have to pack your bags and go join with ISIS. You can join the U.N. club, you can write to your senator, you can start a food drive." We give them options. And we say, "Look, this is within democracy. These are the powers and the choices you have." And we drill down that message. We drill it down by speaking plainly.

What world do we want? I want a world without extremism. And I'm willing to work on it. I'm willing to talk about it, I'm willing to put my money on it.

So there's a clear and present choice between the voice of democracy and the voice of extremism. And democracy should stand up on its values and that's what I believe in.

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