An extraordinary event happened in Austin on January 31 of this year, a day when people from the Muslim community throughout Texas went to the capitol .
Texas Muslim Capitol Day is an occasion for the political leadership of the Muslim community in Texas to bring people to the capitol in Austin to show that they are a presence in Texas and give the community members a chance to meet with their legislators and weigh in on bills ranging from opposing cyber-bullying to preventing people from using Sharia law to resolve disputes.
On this day, I, my wife Deb and Bernadine, all leaders of the local Green Party, had ridden up on the bus from Houston with a contingent from a local mosque. We were there as allies and companions. Mustafaa, the executive director of Houston CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations), and the principal organizer of the event, greeted us on the walk on the way up from the bus stop to the south steps of the capitol where a press conference was to be held. It was a beautiful day, we were glad to be there, pleased to be welcomed by people with blue sashes and placards showing us the way to go. Still, two years ago, at the last such event, a woman who was part of a group of protesters came to the podium, took the microphone as a group of children were about to sing the national anthem, and began shouting about the superiority of Christianity to Islam, and the faults of the prophet Mohammed. The ban on Muslims entering the country had been proclaimed four days before on Friday, and we were apprehensive about what we would find waiting for us.
As we approached the steps of the capitol, the people that seemed to be milling about resolved themselves into a crowd on the side of the street that we were approaching from, and a line, three people deep, along the other side of the street. The people in the front of that line had their arms linked, so that no one could pass. I was on alert immediately. They didn’t look hostile though, and as I got closer, I could see on some of the t-shirts the words “We support our Muslim neighbors”.
As I looked more closely, I could see that the lines of people extended about a hundred yards from the capitol steps to the street at the base of the capitol area. As Deb was told by one of the crowd, they “were there to see that our Muslim brothers and sisters have a safe space to have their event”. When the Muslim community and the allies who had come with them had assembled in front of the steps for the press conference, the crowd reformed into a line, now on both sides side of the street, with the members of the Muslim community and allies in the space between at the foot of the steps. They had created a safe space for the Muslim people to have their event. The capitol police estimated there were 2000 people in those lines. In the distance, at the far end of the street from the capitol steps, at the end of the lines of people, one could just barely hear the angry (and frightened) voices of the people who were protesting the Muslim presence.
The support of so many people had a profound effect on the members of the Muslim community, and indeed, everyone who was there. The imam who first welcomed us, was, and said he was, nearly speechless with the emotional impact of receiving the love being expressed by the people standing in solidarity with his community, and was struggling to restrain his tears. The mayor of Austin made it very clear that all people gay, straight, trans, white, brown black yellow, immigrant Christian, Muslim, Jews, Atheist were welcome in his town and always would be. He spoke to the presence of love in the space we were in, as did other other public office holders.
Mustafaa expected perhaps 200 people to show up as allies, and had no hand in bringing out the supporters. In his capacity as director of CAIR he has had to field innumerable hateful telephone calls. He shared privately that he hadn’t known what to expect when he arrived either, and that the experience of the day was a high point of his life.
When the time came for the Muslim community and those of us who were accompanying them to go to a church a block away to have lunch and get instructions as to how to interact with the legislators, one line of supporters unlinked arms and opened a path for us to get there. They cheered as we passed through the gap they had created. I resisted feeling the effect of that cheering, telling myself it wasn’t for me, it was for the Muslims I was with. I was moved to tears when I accepted that it was for me as well.
While in the large hall at the church, Banafsheh, a former student of mine who I hadn’t seen for 15 years, recognized me and came over to reconnect. I asked her if she knew who had organized the support for the Muslim community. She said that she and a half dozen others had done so. I asked her how it had been done. She said that on the Thursday before the ban on Muslims entering the country had been put into effect, her group had enrolled about 60 people to show up in support. After the ban was put into effect, she said the “phones were ringing off the hook”. They never did get a chance to answer everyone’s call. 2000 people just showed up, many of them, as I found out from one the women wearing the t-shirts, from Christian churches in Austin , who had assisted in the mobilization.