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The Muslim Bloc

A view from Muslim Capitol Day in turbulent times.

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State Representative Jeff Leach of Plano meets with a group of Muslim constituents on Tuesday.
Photo by Eric Benson

Riad Ali, a 54-year-old engineer from Murphy, considers himself a proud, community-minded American. A Palestinian immigrant, he has raised five American-born children, served as president of his local mosque, and worked for a decade-and-a-half in the corporate world. When he first arrived in the U.S. to attend Ohio University in 1982, he remembers that among the other Muslim immigrants he knew, “nobody cared about political things.” Getting by was tough enough; it didn’t seem to matter to many people in his community whether the Republican or the Democrat won. But as Muslim Capitol Day approached this year, Muslim-Americans were feeling a pressing need to get involved in the political process like never before. So on January 31st, Ali woke up before dawn and drove to Austin, to appear at the statehouse and lobby his District 67 representative, Jeff Leach.

“People need to know that Muslims are here, we are part of society,” he said as he stood in a long security line on the Capitol’s western steps on Tuesday afternoon. “The media makes you think Muslims are from outer space, like we will lop off your hands and lock up your women in the basement!”

Over the last decade, Ali has been increasingly focusing his energies on studying the history and culture of Muslims in his adopted country, and last March, after he was laid off from his job at the telecommunications giant Ericsson, he decided it was time to write a book on Islam in America. For the first phase of his research, he engaged in a quintessential American pursuit: he took a road trip. For six months, he and one of his sons crisscrossed the country, visiting “every single mosque and Islamic school in the United States.” (He maintains the website muslimguide.com as a running travelogue.) Along the way, he focused on Muslim outreach too. In April, he made sure he was in Washington, D.C. for National Muslim Advocacy Day, where he was part of a group of Texans affiliated with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) that tried to meet with Senator Ted Cruz and his staff. (Cruz declined to make his office available.)

By the beginning of this year, Ali’s efforts to document Muslim lives and show their essential place in American society had taken on a new level of immediacy. In early January, freshmen Fredericksburg representative Kyle Biedermann sent out a survey to Texas mosques asking whether they renounced the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic extremism, requesting American religious organizations to, in effect, take a House of Un-American Activities–style loyalty oath. Biedermann followed up this provocation by staging a forum at the Capitol titled “Defending Against Radical Islamic Terrorism in Texas,” which gathered together a handful of fringe speakers warning that potential terrorists were streaming across the southern border by the tens of thousands and that Muslim Capitol Day itself was part of a global jihad campaign. Then, last week, President Donald Trump made good on his campaign promise to enact a “Muslim ban,” issuing an executive order that temporarily blocks refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

So far Ali was taking all of these developments in stride. “I think it’s going to be a little rough,” he said. “Trump is still living his reality show, ‘You Are Fired!’ But life goes on, Trump will go. Someone else will come. Then he will go.”

Ali sighed. “We are used to persecution.”

Ali’s friend, Nabil Zahra, who had succeeded him as president of their mosque, broke in. “It’s sad what’s happened, but it’s brought everyone together. And we’ve had support from people all over.”

“Did you see the pictures from the airport protests in Boston?” Ali asked. “That was amazing. I think more people were there than attended the inauguration of Donald Trump.” An impish grin came over his face. “Now let him dispute that!”

A few hours earlier, Ali and the rest of his North Texas delegation had arrived at Muslim Capitol Day to cheers. Hundreds of volunteers wearing t-shirts with slogans like “I Stand With My Muslim Neighbors” had flooded the capitol grounds to support the Muslim community, linking arms in a human chain to block potential protestors from disrupting the event’s opening press conference. At the last Muslim Capitol Day in 2015, a woman named Christine Weick had made headlines for storming the press-conference podium, grabbing a microphone from a Muslim speaker, and screaming, “I stand against Islam and the false prophet Mohammed!” (Weick has also speculated about the relationship between Monster Energy drinks and Satan.) Inside the Capitol that day, things weren’t much better. State representative Molly White had greeted Muslim visitors to her office by instructing her staff to compel them to “renounce Islamic terrorist groups and public announce allegiance to America and our laws.”

This time, the protestors were not only kept on the outside of the human-chain and far from the action, but between the 800 Muslims from the Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio areas and the equal number of volunteers, they were outnumbered by a factor of about 400 to 1.

By the time the final speaker, Alia Salem, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of CAIR, walked to the podium on top of the Capitol steps to address the crowd a little after 11 a.m., the grounds were packed.

“I was here two years ago when we had several Muslims who were out here and a few protestors, but in all the years we’ve been doing this, we’ve never seen a sea of supporters standing with us like today,” she said looking out at the massive crowd. She singled out Biedermann and Trump for special thanks. “Their actions inspired you to be here today,” she said.

Salem wasn’t just talking to the throngs of newly mobilized volunteers. She was pointedly addressing her fellow Muslims. For decades, Muslim-Americans have mostly shied away from electoral politics. Muslim voter turnout has been low. (A 2016 survey found that only 60 percent of eligible Muslim voters were actually registered to vote.) Few Muslims have run for elected office. There has long been a perception in the community, Salem said, “that if I keep my head down, they’ll let me be peaceful with my family.”

But the incidence of anti-Muslim attacks has surged to its highest level since the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the careful “we are not at war with Islam” rhetoric of the Bush and Obama years has been supplanted by Trump’s clash-of-civilizations talk about “the hateful ideology of radical Islam.” As of 2010, there were 422,000 Muslims living in Texas, the most of any state in the country, and that number has likely grown significantly over the past six years. It’s a population that, if mobilized, could swing elections, particularly in Muslim-heavy areas like the Dallas and Houston suburbs. As Salem told the North Texas delegation shortly after her speech on the Capitol steps, this presents an opportunity. “But we need to uplift our political game,” she said. “No longer can we be silent. That time is over.”

By the time Ali and Zahra arrived to meet with Representative Leach, nearly 20 Muslim men, women, and children had already piled into his office. In the 2015 session, Leach had authored House Bill 562, a measure targeting the use of so-called foreign laws in U.S. courtrooms that is championed by activists fearful of a “Sharia takeover.” House Bill 562 didn’t pass, but Canton representative Dan Flynn introduced a similar bill, House Bill 45, in the current session, and Leach has signed on as a co-author. (Frisco respresentative Pat Fallon has introduced a nearly identical “foreign law” bill, House Bill 498.) His Muslim constituents knew this history, and one of them, Ann Bacchus, a Guyanese-American lawyer running for Plano City Council, began to press him on “anti-Sharia bill.”

Leach tried to side step. “I’ve never called it that,” he protested. “This isn’t about Sharia. This has nothing to do with Sharia.”

“This bill is geared toward Muslims,” Bacchus insisted.

“No, it’s not. That is a talking point that someone has told you,” Leach replied. “The bill does not mention religion. The bill does not mention Sharia. The bill does not mention Muslims.” (A federal court has found such language to be unconstitutional.)

The bill was merely providing “a belt and suspenders” for what was already in the Constitution, Leach said, and it was necessary because Texas judges and lawyers had asked for it. (The American Bar Association has adopted a formal resolution opposing such anti-foreign law bills.) Leach was talking at a rapid clip, looked deeply uncomfortable, and seemed like he might well try to make an escape through his office window. But as the conversation on the bill reached a standstill and his constituents brought up other issues, the state representative grew noticeably more relaxed. A woman in a hijab told Leach about the bigotry she was subjected to at the grocery store. “I can’t claim to have been on the receiving end of that,” Leach said with concern, “but I’ve never been like that.” His constituents nodded.

Another woman talked about her proudly American children, pointed to the pictures of Leach’s “young, beautiful kids” on the windowsill, and asked if the state representative would meet with them for a more casual sit down. He said he would. “We’ve had Muslim families come over to our house!” he added, beaming.

Bacchus told Leach that the group had gotten up at 4 a.m. to come to Muslim Capitol Day.

“That’s awesome!” Leach replied.

“No, what’s awesome is that we can do this in this country,” interjected a Pakistani immigrant named Faisal Imam, who had come to Leach’s office with his three young children. “In the countries most of us come from this is not even a possibility. You would be king and the rest of us would be your slaves. So thank God we are in this country.”

“Thank you for saying that,” Leach replied, “because that’s what makes America great! America is already great, by the way.”

The room broke into laughter. Soon, Leach had joined his Muslim constituents in the hallway for a few group pictures, leading the kids in an “America!” cheer in the final shot.

Ali and Zahra came away impressed with Leach’s political skill. “We didn’t come prepared,” Zahra lamented. They were never going to support an anti-“foreign law” bill, and they were unlikely to change Leach’s mind either. But the representative had hosted them in his office for 30 minutes and the exchange had ended graciously. “Not everyone would do that,” Zahra said.

“And he said we can come back any time to discuss the bill,” Ali added.

On that day, in these times, the simple act of polite conversation had been victory enough.

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