Naked City

For 9/11, Crossing the Divide

Prayers at the state Capitol during Texas Muslims 
Legislative Day
Prayers at the state Capitol during Texas Muslims Legislative Day (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Americans everywhere observed the third anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks this weekend, and not surprisingly, religion was at the center of some events. Here in Austin, there were attempts to reach across religious and cultural divides; some results were impressive, some were mixed.

At the state Capitol, people of the Islamic faith from around the state converged on the second annual Texas Muslims Legislative Day, an event sponsored by the Freedom and Justice Foundation (a Dallas-area organization dedicated to getting Muslims involved in the political process) and hosted by state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson. Billed as a "homeland security event," proceedings included an interfaith prayer with various Texas clergy for the victims of 9/11, a speech by a Muslim FBI agent, and an especially interesting talk by Steven McCraw, Texas' director of homeland security.

McCraw opened his address by trying to assuage attendees' fears of wrongly being targeted in terrorism investigations: "What does a terrorist a look like?" he asked rhetorically. "It looks like an American. That's what a terrorist looks like. Because we're a nation of immigrants. We represent all faiths, all people, all nationalities."

But in a follow-up question-and-answer session with attendees, the former FBI agent said he stands by the very Bush policies that have caused many Muslims great concern. Asked about detainees at Guantanamo Bay held without charges and the USA PATRIOT Act, McCraw said, "I can't comment on [Guantanamo], because I didn't deal with that world. ... But I can speak to the PATRIOT Act. If you can imagine, prior to 9/11, we had agents in the same squad who couldn't share information. That's a reality. ... I'm really not satisfied with the PATRIOT Act. If you ask me, in terms of my past career in the FBI, it doesn't go far enough."

Another questioner brought up the Pakistani native who, after visiting Austin and other cities, was arrested after videotaping several buildings, dams, and other structures. The man was then paraded to the media as a "terrorism suspect," but ultimately has only been charged with immigration and other crimes not related to terrorism. "Are you suggesting not to carry my video camera and take pictures for my kids?" asked one man.

"Knock yourself out," said McCraw. "There's no law against it. You have absolute freedom to take pictures of anything in public. And you should continue that right. But at the same time, if I'm taking pictures of the White House at night time using an infrared scope, I expect the Secret Service, if they see me, that they're going to want to talk to me." (Of course, the Pakistani was not doing any such thing.)

At various other locations around town, fence-crossing took the form of a "pulpit swap," sponsored by Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, in which clergy of one faith would cross town to speak to a different congregation. Sadly, the event wasn't quite the rousing success for which AAIM had hoped – they say they had a hard time finding congregations willing to hear from Muslims, and placing a Wiccan ambassador was even harder. (A Wiccan, Tom Davis, eventually ended up at Trinity United Methodist in North Hyde Park.)

Imam Safdar Razi of the Islamic Ahlul Bayt Association was entertained by the Rev. Gerald Mann's Riverbend Church out on Highway 360. The two sat down for a fascinating conversation during Sunday services that seemed to be very well received by Riverbend's well-heeled congregation. Mann began by telling his interdenominational worshippers of how he met Razi on the Capitol steps shortly after 9/11, and then launched into a denunciation of fundamentalism – Christian, Jewish, and Muslim alike. "I don't think it's a coincidence, by the way, that the two leading voices of Christian fundamentalism in America, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, right after 9/11 said that this was the judgment of God on our secular, heathen society," Mann said. "So, you must never make the mistake of thinking that fundamentalism is peculiar to Islam."

The 9/11 terrorists "claim that they are Muslims," Razi said. "They attacked Islam. Because this is not Islam. This is an attack on the principles of Islam, principles of Christianity, Judaism, principle of every peaceful, God-fearing religion. It's not something which any religion promotes. In fact, a terrorist, he doesn't have any religion. He has his own agenda."

Mann followed with another denunciation, this time of the media: "They always present two views. The opposite poles, the extreme right and extreme left. The word 'moderate' for media is just not a very good word." Said Razi, "I listen to these talk shows, [and they ask] 'Where are the Muslims? Why do they not condemn these things?' ... I ask them, 'Where are you guys? Why aren't you coming to us and listening to our words? ... I have to write editorials [in the Austin American-Statesman] because nobody came and asked my opinion."

Mann noted the differences between the two religions, but asked: "Do you have to be my twin brother to be my brother?" (The conversation between Mann and Razi will be featured on Riverbend's KTBC broadcast this Sunday at 7:30am.)

Several dozen congregations participated in the exchange, but AAIM Executive Director Susan Wills said it was "greatly discouraging" that some member organizations were "not ready and not willing to see a person from a faith outside their own in such a holy and respected place" – which, of course, would seem to be the point of "interreligious." Wills said that while many area faith leaders were willing, they were overruled by their own deacons and congregations.

The Rev. David Bernard of the New Life United Pentecostal Church told the Austin American-Statesman that he would end his AAIM membership because of the inclusion of the Wiccans and a supposed ban on proselytizing by members. Wills told us that "It's not AAIM's job to determine what is or is not a religion," only that member congregations must pledge to be "life-affirming and work for the betterment of Austin as a whole," and she said no proselytizing ban exists: "AAIM as an organization does not seek to convert people to other religions, but we don't restrict congregations from inviting others to join them on their life journey."

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