It is my pleasure to join with the Muslim community in Austin’s City Wide Iftar. This is my fourth dinner and I am a truly honored guest tonight.
The first City Wide Iftar was a response to an ugly incident in which Leilah Abdennabi and Sirat Al-Nahi were accosted because of their identity at a local restaurant. Soon after, in my conference room with a handful of the Muslim community’s young leaders, many different emotions were channeled into creating this event for Austin to share a meal of peace together.
I recognize the deeply spiritual nature of this time period on the Islamic calendar. It is a time for reflection, piety and growing closer to Allah through abstinence from worldly distractions and through the giving of charity. As a member of the Jewish community, I recognize parallels to a similar time period on the Jewish calendar.
We’ve gathered at too many vigils this past year. Too many times I’ve been required as mayor to help lead our community through tragedy, condemnations of hatred, and the holding, hugging and supporting of one another. These are difficult times for, among others, the Muslim and Jewish communities. These communities share an alarming rise in antiMuslim and anti-Semitic incidents, some in our own city.
Within the last six months we have been witness to two synagogue shootings and a massacre of Muslims praying in peace in a mosque in Christchurch. Our Muslim and Jewish communities have stood with each other to grieve and to lend strength.
After the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, the first messages of concern and comfort received by my rabbi, here tonight, came from friends within the Muslim community. Jews participated in the Christchurch vigil, just as Muslims, like Maram Museitif, were in the Chabad house three weeks ago.
Favorable views of people of another religion are highest among people that have friends of that religion. Did you know a Georgetown University study reports that Muslims and Jews report the highest percentage of good friendships with one another?
No wonder, then, that Jews, as compared to all other faith groups, hold the most overwhelmingly positive view of Muslims. American Muslim views of Jews mirror those high levels of positives, again higher than any other faith group. Tonight, gathered here together over a special meal, we are reinforcing bridges that have been built over time, frequently built one friendship at a time.
I’d also like to acknowledge the moment in which we find ourselves together. In a city that pays much attention to food, tonight’s dinner may be the most discussed meal in town. I’ve been asked, publicly and privately, about my participation.
Simply, I’m here because as mayor, it’s my privilege and duty to lean into, not retreat from, learning and growing opportunities for my community. Being among friends, I’ll speak from my heart about the power and resilience of the bonds we all share even in the face of challenges.
Dialogue can be a source of unity, but so, too, can words be a source of division. In recent years, our political landscape has increasingly included anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic tropes designed to stigmatize and to foment suspicion.
References to Muslims as terrorists and Jews as interested only in money are not only libelous, they are dangerous. Even more so are libels which question Muslim and Jewish loyalty to the United States, sometimes rooted in Muslim adherence to Sharia law or Jewish support for the State of Israel.
As both of our communities have learned, such tropes have real consequences. If we are to avoid sharing more moments of pain together, we must be deliberate, mindful and informed to avoid the painful and false narratives that have been used against each of our communities over time.
Whether intended as hurtful or not, in our new political and social reality, those at the fringe weaponize these tropes with frightening speed and often to disastrous effect. They hear the use of these words as acquiescence or approval of their bigotry.
At the velocity of a meme, the suggestion of a hateful idea is compounded, picked up and piled on. The momentum and malevolence of this progression can overwhelm reason and — if we are not vigilant — undermine society’s ability to draw clearly a line between what is right and wrong. And then hatred, and the words, spread to others.
The perpetuation of these words causes a significant harm because they bring fear to those whose history causes them to hear the words as threats. The cycle and the history are perceived to be reinforced regardless of the intent behind the initial use of the words.
Those of us listening have a responsibility, too. History teaches us that silence — a failure to call out how words and the ripples of fear that begin as soon as they are spoken — is the early failure that allows the most harmful tropes to take root and grow into more malignant ideas… and later, actions.
So, when lines are crossed, even inadvertently, we must speak. It is our responsibility to point out the impact of language rooted in old and harmful stereotypes and to hold the speakers of those words accountable for their impact.
When we speak out; we must also be consistent. We must condemn all such hateful and hurtful language. Being selective in our sanctions can create an even more insidious evil.
It is patently wrong for people to weaponize condemnation and to use it as a cheap political organizing tool by only directing it toward those they wish to demonize because of their identify, if they wear hijab for example. Just as there is no innocent use of a trope, there is no innocent failure to call out transgressions equally and everywhere.
With different histories, we may not recognize all the meanings of all the words. How can I be responsible for what I cannot hear? That, I would suggest, is part of what this City Wide Iftar is about. We gather together to learn to hear with each other’s ears. To see with each other’s eyes. To feel what each other feels. To celebrate and to protect one another. To grow and learn, from and with each other.
I have so many friends in this room that I care about so deeply. I thank you for making me aware of and sensitive to your lived experiences that I didn’t know. I hope I’ve been part of similar growth for you.
Today, we have an elected American official with us: a woman of color… an immigrant… wearing hijab on the floor of the US Congress. That image is inspiring and a wonderful symbol of our country’s progress toward real and meaningful representation in government for people who have not previously seen themselves reflected in our democratic institutions.
That image is incomplete, because it is silent. This leader, as we’ve heard, also has a voice and a fist to pound and she was elected to use both. As with all groups and all people, there will be times when interests will not align, sometimes as concerns some aspects of US policy in the Middle East. In such cases, robust and thoughtful advocacy of our individual positions is the right of each of us, as it is for every American. Rep. Omar, as with other elected officials, is entitled to be heard.
You have heard me criticize our President for failing to recognize, or choosing to ignore, that with a public platform comes the responsibility to advocate for positions without resorting to utilizing hurtful tropes designed to demean and sow suspicion about those with opposing views. All too often in contemporary politics, it seems that it is somehow not sufficient to advocate one’s own views; one must also demonize those with whom we disagree. The use of such language does not serve to advance the conversation; it actually does the direct opposite. Having sustained the sting of canards, many are unable to listen to anything further.
Together, we must create and preserve a space, big enough for us to speak up and call out the improper use of tropes and canards that we hear. It must be a big enough space, still, for each of us to learn of others and their histories, and to learn of words that empower bigots and engender fear. We must create the space for us to embrace the challenge of learning to recognize that calling out hurtful language should be the beginning of a mutual learning experience, rather than the end of a conversation.
We need more moments like tonight where we come together to share a meal, to hear inspiring words, and to recognize our common link to the One God. As a city, we need more such moments to recognize the commonality of all peoples of faith and to celebrate the rich diversity of our city. All of us, Muslim and non-Muslim. should utilize this holy time to reflect on our own roles in either fomenting division or fostering peace.
Little did the Muslim leaders know four years ago that their vision of a City Wide Iftar would become so well attended. I know that I take away great inspiration from the City Wide Iftar. I look forward to joining all of you in this observance for so long as I have the privilege of being mayor… and then simply as a friend in the years beyond.