Losing My Lege is a weekly column about the goings-on in and around the Austin capitol building during the 84th Texas Legislature.
We’re just a little more than two weeks into Texas’ 84th Legislature, and our lawmakers are again making national news—this time, for displays of blatant racism in response to the quaint little notion that they have an obligation to interact in good faith, as it were, with their constituents.
On Thursday, Muslim Texans, about half of them teenagers, convened in Austin for the seventh annual Texas Muslim Capitol Day to visit with their elected officials. There, they were met by a couple dozen protesters hurling racist, anti-Islam invectives at the schoolkids who had gathered to sing the national anthem on the statehouse steps.
The protesters carried signs comparing Islam to Nazism, telling the group to “go home.” (I’m fairly certain they didn’t mean “home” as in “back to Houston.”) One woman—apparently a Michigander shilling self-published Biblical apocalypse nonsense—even wrested the microphone from one of the Muslim speakers in order to holler about the “false prophet Mohammed.”
Out-uglying that ugliness, freshman house member Molly White (R-Belton), who’s already made quite a name for herself by standing out as an extremist even among the anti-abortion rights crowd, issued a Facebook update explaining that she’d put an Israeli flag on display (?!) and instructed her staff to demand oaths of American fealty from any Muslim Texans who dared cross her office’s threshold.
“We will see how long they stay in my office,” White virtually sniffed, not-at-all subtly implying that Muslim Texans—again, fresh off singing the national anthem on the statehouse steps—are traitorous terrorists who might recoil at the mere threat of real patriotism, something something ‘Murka eagles apple pie.
Ruth Nasrullah, the Houston-based communications director for the Texas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told me that while the anti-Islam contingent’s presence at the capitol wasn’t “unexpected,” the strength and tenor of this week’s gathering was “surprising,” compared to quieter opposition in years past. Undeterred, Nasrullah said that “we’re going to be engaged, even though we are a minority.”
“Part of the reason we’re there,” said Nasrullah, “is to have our faces and our voices out there to show that we are part of the political process.”
Specialized lobby days are a regular occurrence in Austin, bringing diverse groups of Texans to the capitol from across the state to talk with lawmakers about the issues they care about most. On Thursday, Muslim groups hoped to garner legislative support for the continuation of the Texas DREAM Act, which helps unauthorized immigrant minors access higher education, and for legislation that would require Texas law enforcement officers to wear body cameras.
Muslim Texans also met directly with lawmakers and staffers, asking their representatives to oppose bills that single out Islamic Sharia law as uniquely in need of regulation or banishment—a brand of right-wing legislative posturing that capitalizes on anti-Muslim sentiment and foments baseless fears about Texas government being taken over by secret Muslim criminal courts.
“Sharia is everything, it’s code for everything a Muslim does,” explained Nasrullah. Anti-Islam lawmakers seem to fixate on the potential for Sharia to somehow replace the American criminal code as an established rule of law lording over all citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation. “It’s sort of a red herring,” said Nasrullah. “In America, people don’t overtake the government and say, ‘I’m imposing my religious law.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
Simply put, right-wing panic over Sharia “doesn’t make sense,” said Nasrullah. “It’s not really a threat.”
As Texas Muslims went about their day of asking lawmakers to stay out of their business, the #MollyWhitePower hashtag took off on Twitter, and White’s gross bigotry was roundly criticized almost everywhere. Texas Monthly‘s Erica Grieder did, however, caution against having too swift and strong a reaction to White’s words, positing that the Republican freshman might simply be a newbie lawmaker on a “learning curve.” Perhaps it would be prudent, warned Grieder, to “pause,” and “consider the comment in context and think about any mitigating factors.”
Grieder wrote that she “can only think of two reasons” White would demand oaths of fealty from Muslim Texans: “She thinks they’re intrinsically suspicious, or that there’s enough reflexive anti-Muslim sentiment in right-wing circles that she didn’t give it much thought at all.”
I’d throw an “and” rather than an “or” between those two reasons, and toss in the third possibility that White is a racist Islamophobe who says and believes racist, Islamophobic things. But I’m just spitballing, based on the fact that White openly enacted a policy telling Muslim Texans that they were uniquely required to pledge allegiance to America-slash-evidently-Israel in order to begin any conversation whatsoever with her office.
Perhaps I’m being reactive and ungenerous by not taking into account White’s freshman “learning curve,” or by failing to give her the benefit of considering “mitigating factors” that might cause her to demand loyalty oaths from religious minorities, as Grieder suggests. But there’s a time to hear both sides and there’s a time for condemning outright bigotry, and this situation sort of feels to me like the latter.
In the aftermath of the protest and White’s appalling pledge mandate, Texas’ highest-ranking house member, Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), issued a statement reminding legislators to treat capitol visitors with “dignity and respect.” Friday morning, Texas’ newly elected Gov. Greg Abbott called for “civil discourse” to be “done civilly,” allowing everyone “the opportunity to weigh in on their beliefs.”
Which is important, of course. It’s nice for lawmakers to reiterate that all Texans have a right to participate in democracy by visiting their elected officials in the statehouse, but these are also thoroughly milquetoast responses to egregious bigotry. Of course all Texans have a right to speak with legislators without being compelled to engage in government-mandated speech; that’s sort of the whole entire point of this little democracy thing we’ve ostensibly got going on. Sadly, that’s apparently not patently obvious to some folks—for example, say, Molly White and the horde of supporters gumming up her Facebook page.
But hey, let’s assume Molly White is the misunderstood victim of a “learning curve” who simply needs a little schooling in the fine art of not making a mockery of the foundational tenets of democracy. Fine. But we don’t teach children that stealing is wrong by pontificating generally about the badness of stealing. We create consequences and seek to redress harm. So it seems strange for Texas’ GOP leadership to issue vague, blanket statements of the obvious in response to White’s pointed, willfully offensive rhetoric, rather than decrying White’s statements directly and reaching out to Texas’ Muslim community in a show—and perhaps it would still only be a show—of solidarity.
Unless, of course, Texas’ dominant political party is more afraid of alienating the xenophobes who elected people like Molly White than it is committed to welcoming Muslim Texans to a statehouse that, after all, belongs as much to them as it does white Christian women from Belton.