Texas’ Islamophobia Runs Deeper Than Capitol Protests

Students from Houston Quran Academy sing the national anthem at the Texas Capitol.
Kelsey Jukam
Students from Houston Quran Academy sing the national anthem at the Texas Capitol.

Condemnation of the anti-Muslim rage at the Capitol on Thursday was fairly widespread among the media, elected officials and other members of the political mainstream. House Speaker Joe Straus put out a statement saying, in part, “legislators have a responsibility to treat all visitors just as we expect to be treated—with dignity and respect.” The Dallas Morning News editorialized that the “disgusting spectacle at the state Capitol and Rep. Molly White’s ignorant Facebook babble make you embarrassed to be Texan.”

Even Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), a Christian right pol who’s sponsoring an anti-Sharia bill, tried to elevate the day out of the muck.

It was a rare moment of unity among an increasingly bitter and partisan—and dare I say, extreme—environment at the Capitol.

Some were eager to paint the two dozen or so Islamophobic protesters as a marginal group unrepresentative of Texas. The Dallas Morning News, in a tone uncharacteristic of staid editorial pages, put forth a #NotAllTexans argument: “Tell your in-laws in New York that we’re not all hateful, hayseed, redneck, ignorant Bubbas. Yes, we do have hateful, hayseed, redneck ignorant Bubbas in Texas.”

And that’s true as far as it goes: Most Texans don’t spend their days screaming at middle- and high-school students and dragging their knuckles around in public. Explaining how a state rep came to believe that the way to greet her constituents was to taunt them with the flag of a foreign nation and demand they take a loyalty oath is a harder task, though. Still, some tried. Erica Grieder of Texas Monthly pointed out that Rep. Molly White is a true freshman (no redshirts in the Lege) and probably has a bit of “a learning curve” to deal with. And this is true in its way too.

Surely Rep. White will think twice before she lets loose with full-throated bigotry again. Someone will show her how to use a dog-whistle instead.

But Rep. White and the anti-Muslim protesters did not appear out of nowhere. What happened last week is merely an extreme manifestation of deep-seated Islamophobia in Texas. If you care to scratch beneath the surface, the hatred of Muslims in tea party circles is palpable. White, for example, has spoken at least three times in the past few months on Raging Elephants Radio—a tea party radio program run by Apostle Claver, a black tea partier from Beaumont. On one recent show, the host, Doc Greene praised mosque burnings in Sweden, said Islam should be made illegal in Texas and told his listeners, “We need to make Muslims in Texas feel unsafe.”

This is not conservatism. This is crypto-fascism, the kind of jackbooted thuggery that is on the march in Europe today. Is Rep. White aware of Greene’s views? Does she share them?

Granted, Greene and White are outliers on the political spectrum. But virulently racist and paranoid rhetoric directed at Muslims is far from unusual. The Oak Initiative, a religious right organization active in Texas, has been beating the drum about an Islamic takeover of America for years. Here’s an example from a recent email to supporters:

Islam is one of the biggest threats in the world.  It is the anti-Christ system that is rising and Christians are called to confront it head on.  In order to do so you must be informed.

As Christians, we do not hate muslim people, but we do stand against the spirit of Islam that has millions in bondage and is seeking to bring the United States under its subjection through the implementation of Sharia Law (Islamic Law).

In 2011, the Oak Initiative leadership, based in Kerrville, claimed to have helped former state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) write an anti-Sharia bill. The legislation didn’t go anywhere, but the notion that Sharia is somehow taking over courts in Texas, where judges are elected, just won’t die. The whole interplay of Sharia and American law has been wildly distorted and exaggerated. And not just by obscure radio programs. Ted Cruz has been on the Sharia bandwagon for years, calling it an “enormous problem” in 2012. Breitbart Texas has moved from beating up on Central American child refugees to hyperventilating over a non-story about Sharia courts in North Texas, which was then picked up by Fox News.

Anti-Muslim protesters.
Kelsey Jukam
A small group of anti-Muslim protesters disrupted speakers.

And let’s not forget one of the opening acts of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s career. In 2007, as a freshman senator, he refused to stay in the Senate chamber while a Muslim imam gave the traditional opening prayer for the day. Later, he said, “I think that it’s important that we are tolerant as a people of all faiths, but that doesn’t mean we have to endorse all faiths, and that was my decision.”

In Patrick’s mind, listening to a prayer is to “endorse” it—a problematic standard given that there are several Jewish legislators, including House Speaker Joe Straus. Imagine if a Muslim served in the Legislature.

Earlier in the 2007 session, Patrick had gotten the Senate to agree to put “In God We Trust” at the front of the Senate. I guess we knew which God he had in mind: His.

It is in this context of powerful politicians and media demagogues that Islamophobia is on the rise. Consider the experience of Heba Said, the Muslim UT-Arlington student who attended the Texas Republican Party Convention as a reporter for The Shorthorn. Said wears hijab—an article of clothing that was apparently a provocation to some of the GOP attendees. Said described “a cult-like hatred that is simply disgusting.” She was harangued about being Muslim, treated like an unwelcome visitor and even watched by police.

A couple months ago we profiled Mohamed Elibiary, a Plano Republican who happens to be Muslim and helps law enforcement combat extremism. Despite having a government security clearance, Elibiary has become a target of right-wing activists, who believe he is in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood and, predictably, part of some Obama-led fifth column to destroy America.

A couple weeks ago, a conference in Garland dedicated in part to fighting Islamic extremism was swarmed by protesters carrying signs bearing messages such as “Stand for the Savior Jesus Christ” and “Insult Those Who Behead Others.” Similar protests erupted in Houston the next day.

This is the lizard brain at work: My religion leaves no room for your religion.

The Capitol can seem like a rarefied place, but it’s not immune from the free-floating bigotry that’s roiling outside those heavy oak doors. Sometimes it finds a home inside.

Updated: The original version of the story misquoted House Speaker Joe Straus’ statement. The post has been corrected. We regret the error.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

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Published at 3:05 pm CST
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