Johnson County Supervisors to Muslim community: “We have your back”

On Tuesday morning, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a proclamation in support of the Muslim community. The document acknowledged Johnson County’s longtime Muslim population and expressed concern for the threats they are facing as the result of “being unfairly forced to bear the fears of our nation.” Its supporters resolved to “stand shoulder to shoulder with them as agents of peace, justice, understanding and welcome.”

This comes close on the heels of an event last Saturday, when around 100 protestors gathered at a Donald Trump rally in Cedar Rapids, the home to the first dedicated mosque building in America, to oppose his much-criticized proposition to ban Muslims from entering the United States. A rise in hate crimes against Muslims nationwide has been reported in the wake of Trump’s comments, as well as following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino.

The Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa (CWJ) and the Consultation of Religious Communities (CRC) held a press conference prior to the meeting to release their own statements of support and acknowledge the threats facing the Muslim community as a result of global events and political tensions. More than 40 supporters gathered in the Johnson County Administration Building to extend their support to local Muslims, and to condemn the recent surge in xenophobia.

The conference began with a statement from CWJ Secretary Sergio Irund A-wan, who underscored the roles of Muslims in the community as residents, neighbors and job creators. “I would like us to tell you that they are good people,” he said.

“We condemn the recent national, state and local rhetoric that spreads vicious lies, encourages fear and hatred, and denigrates the Muslim community,” said CWJ ally board member Diane Finnerty in the organization’s formal statement, which also noted the work of Muslims within the CWJ. She expressed hope that the Johnson County community’s respect would “outshine the hateful, racist rhetoric by U.S. legislators, presidential candidates, media pundits and too many members of our public.” Finnerty then addressed Muslims directly: “We believe the Iowa City/Coralville community is stronger and more vibrant with you in the community.”

Pastor Dorothy Whiston of the CRC and CWJ.  -- photo by Lucy Morris
Pastor Dorothy Whiston of the CRC and CWJ. — photo by Lucy Morris

Representing CRC were Charlie Eastham, its president, and Pastor Dorothy Whiston, a member, both of whom spoke about religious pluralism and the nature of extremism. Eastham emphasized unity in his remarks: “All of the great religions envision a world of peace, justice, community,” he said. Whiston noted a religious double standard: “We cannot ask Muslims to repudiate extremism in their tradition, without acknowledging that this destructive strain is present in all traditions.”

In a brief but emphatic statement, Board of Supervisors Vice-Chair Rod Sullivan said, “Local government does not discriminate, we’re not going to tolerate discrimination, and our Muslim brothers and sisters: we have your back.”

In advance of the press conference, Whiston, who is also part of CWJ’s Interfaith Committee, said she hoped the resolution would raise awareness. “I’m hoping that people will think twice before lumping all Muslims together or all of any religion together with people who are extremists,” she said. “That’s a whole different issue than the faith itself.”

But such a preconception toward a faith or group, she pointed out, can translate into actions. “Muslims in our community, liberal as we like to say that we are, do feel often threatened or shunned and I think it’s so important that, especially as we’re having this Christian holiday of peace and love, we extend ourselves to people who are feeling excluded.”

Merfat Mohammed, an American-Sudanese and member of the CWJ who has lived in Iowa for more than three years, was there to support the resolution. She said she hoped it would “send the message out to people who maybe misunderstand whatever is happening among the Muslim community, and maybe to correct whatever people have the wrong image.” She called the proposition, “a step to change, hopefully.”

During the Board of Supervisors meeting after the press conference, Board Member Mike Carberry said the proclamation made him “very happy” and reiterated that extremism was not an Islamic-based problem. “We’ve had a lot of terrorism in this country from Christian extremists,” he said.

Carberry also said he was proud that, “not only the county but the citizens of the county can step up and say hatred of Muslims and the Islamic religion is wrong. We stand by our brothers and sisters of the Islamic faith.”

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