We have an Islamophobia problem in this country. Typically I don’t like using the “I word” because it’s easy to see how others may hold a different view than mine about what constitutes hate and bigotry. But the news out of Austin, TX this week is startling in a number of ways and the word Islamophobia just fits perfectly, especially the phobia part. A group of Muslims from Texas, many of whom I know personally, went to Austin to this week to meet their elected officials and they had a few unpleasant surprises waiting for them. The worst part? It was all under the guise of patriotism and loyalty.
Texas Muslim Capitol Day is a tradition in Texas, encouraging everyday Muslims from across the state to come out to Austin and meet their representatives. It helps teach Muslims – many of whom are immigrants – about the political process and allows for a free exchange of ideas between groups and organizations. It gives elected officials a chance to meet their constituents, many of whom voted for them, and all of whom they have sworn to serve.
According to the Council on American Islamic Relations, Texas (CAIR-TX) the purpose of the annual event is to offer “an opportunity for community members to learn about the democratic political process and how to be an advocate for important issues.”
Somebody forgot to tell this to Rep. Molly White, who was less than eager to meet this group. She wasn’t the only one to find it offensive that Americans of a certain faith could come visit the state capitol – protestors met them outside and interrupted their program as expected, stopping a group of Muslim children from singing the Star Spangled Banner. The Texas Observer and countless other local and national papers told the story much better than I could. It would have been funny, except that it was very serious if you think about it.
Newbie state representative Molly White posted the following on her Facebook book in anticipation of her visit:
Today is Texas Muslim Capital day [sic] in Austin. The House is in recess until Monday. Most Members including myself are back in District. I did leave an Israeli flag on the reception desk in my office with instructions to staff to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws. We will see how long they stay in my office.
It should pain us all, not only Muslims, that this is a statement coming out of an elected official’s social media platform. Never mind the First Amendment, never mind common sense and common decency, some of our elected officials don’t seem to understand or care that they should be an example for the rest of us, instead of the lowest common denominator. Does everybody who comes into the Capitol have to pledge allegiance to America? Do we equate loyalty to America with loyalty to Israel? Does Molly White or any other Christian have to renounce the KKK or any other fanatic group before they can gain entrance into the hallowed grounds of the State Capitol? It boggles the mind that this could actually have been said, but it was, and the repercussions in terms of negative publicity for White are sure to be fierce.
Sadly, though, White isn’t the only politician whose Islamophobia is showing these days. Islam-bashing is big business, and those who want to gain popularity and votes will jump on the bandwagon regardless of how bigoted or downright stupid they sound. The Texas Observer explains:
White’s words are a reminder that anti-Muslim bigotry is a core partof the worldview of the state’s far-right, which fears little morethan Islam. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick boycotted the first prayer delivered by an Imam in the Texas Senate back in 2007. Last year, a hijab-clad reporter from UT-Arlington’s student newspaper wrote about her unpleasant experiences at the Republican Party of Texas’ convention. Cathie Adams, a former chairwoman of the state GOP, has been traveling the state educating tea party groups to the fact that important figures in the national Republican hierarchy and the intelligence community are secret Muslims.
I think we need Muslim Capitol Day not just in Texas but all over the country. We need brave souls who will ignore the heckling and the taunts, the offensive Facebook posts and hurtful Twitter comments, and go meet our elected officials each and every year. That’s the only way to prevent an entire generation of youth from becoming disillusioned and marginalized. That’s the only way to bring about a change in the political lineup, a change in the way people think and feel about those different from themselves. To paraphrase the band The Alternative Routes, we are, after all, how we treat others and nothing more.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston and trainer of American Muslim issues. Her upcoming book Brick Walls: Tales of Hope and Courage from Pakistan will be published in summer 2015. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi.