race and space

When Religion is Made a Race

On May 18, 2019, Mayor Steve Adler hosted a citywide Iftar, with the honored guest of Representative Ilhan Omar. For those who were unaware–as I was–Iftar is the dinner during Ramadan used to break the fast. For those who have been living under a rock, Rep. Omar has come under fire for speaking against a powerful lobbyist group. Consequently, she has received an increasing number of death threats, since she was already under fire for being a Black Muslim woman. It was at this dinner that I learned that the mayor was Jewish.

The Iftar was held on the east side of town, which has traditionally been a place for people of color to feel safe. People often assume that only people of color practice Islam, but forget that religion is a philosophy. However, this was the perfect setting for followers who had been ostracized by the dominant narrative. The one Islamic school in Austin is located in East Austin, and it is fortunately located close to a bus line, a difficult task with rising property values; the hotel for the dinner took over an hour to get to from southeast Austin. While in line for the buffet, I stood next to a Muslim man who was lamenting the displacement occurring in East Austin, and I congratulated him and his family for being able to hold fast in a rapidly changing community.

As I arrived, my first impression was of security, probably because of the protest and counterprotest occurring in from of the hotel. The police were prominently displayed, and guests were not allowed to attend the dinner without a wristband verifying that they were legitimately on the list. Because Texas is an open-carry state (for some people), I got my first glimpse of an AK-47 and MAGA hats. In that moment, I realized just how dangerous it is to depict a followers of a religion as a race, and not just people. I have been to dozens of fancy dinners at many different hotels, and nothing was even in the news like this event. The myth that terrorism will break out wherever Muslims are present was literally disrupting the sanctity of a private event where the mayor was invited, not funding. Because of the backlash against Rep. Omar, Mayor Adler had been angrily approached by constituents to avoid the dinner, especially in a state that has legislated against the BDS movement.

While I pondered the implications that the Black Muslim woman was a keynote speaker while a White Jewish man was the honored guest, I also recognized the significance of this event, and neither spoke more than the other. The organization putting on the event stated that it was the largest Muslim gathering that had ever occurred in Austin. I sat next to a woman from Rhode Island who recently moved to Austin and had never seen that many fellow Muslims in her community. And I nearly sobbed when I saw the banner signed for Rep. Omar, stating “Jews Stand with Ilhan.”

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