Wasserman Schultz hopes to combat prejudice, make political point about Republicans by inviting Muslim constituent to State of Union
By Anthony Man
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the first Jewish congresswoman from Florida, said Monday she hopes to counter some of the hate-filled rhetoric in recent months by inviting a Muslim-American constituent to this year's State of the Union address.
There's an added political bonus for the Weston congresswoman, who also is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. The statement she makes by having Dr. Mohsin Jaffer attend President Barack Obama's final State of the Union speech is a contrast with the message of hostility Democrats and Muslim-Americans see emanating from many Republican presidential candidates.
"The rhetoric and vitriol that has been targeted at this community has been absolutely outrageous and unacceptable. And as a member of a minority religion myself, one that has faced persecution throughout our existence, to me the idea that we would stand idly by and ignore that and not stand up and use our voices to stand up for our brothers and sisters in the Muslim-American community was just unacceptable," Wasserman Schultz said at a news conference in Weston.
"While everybody has a right to express their opinion in the United States of America, the rest of us that are thinking correctly and who believe in the values that America stands for have the right to drown them out. No better way to drown out hate than buy making sure that we all lock arms and stand up as leaders in our country and push back and say, 'Enough is enough. We will not accept that type of rhetoric. We will not accept that people in America will be treated that way based on who they are," she said.
The Islamic State-supported terrorist attacks last year in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., produced an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric. That backlash promoted Wasserman Schultz to approach U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., one of two Muslims in Congress, to suggest that they urge their colleagues to consider bringing Muslim-American constituents as their guests to the president's speech in the House chamber on Tuesday. Each member of Congress can have one guest in the gallery.
Wasserman Schultz said she believes inviting Muslim-Americans for the event creates a powerful message. As of Monday, Wasserman Schultz said 20 to 25 representatives and senators had joined the effort. The only other one from Florida is U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Hastings' office said later his guest would be Nezar Hamze, a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy who also works with the Florida branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Jaffer, who lives in Weston, said the fear of Muslims some are expressing stems from ignorance. People don't know that Muslims have been Americans since the founding of the country, he said.
As for Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate who has suggested barring Muslims from entering the U.S., raised the prospect of a registry of Muslims and mused about monitoring mosques, Jaffer said he thinks he's motivated by a desire to grab attention.
"Mr. Trump is running for office, and I think he's a media person. So he realizes the more sensational you are, the more attention you get. And perhaps, I hope, he doesn't mean what he says because I don't think a smart businessman would do things like that. And he has a lot of businesses all over the world, and a lot of his clients are Muslims, so I don't know why he would say that," Jaffer said.
Jaffer, 61, who grew up in Kenya and emigrated to the U.S. at 29, said he grew up "in great awe of our Founding Fathers," for creating a nation where Trump's ability to say whatever he wants is protected by the Constitution. "It is important for our fellow Americans to understand, this is the greatness of America, that somebody can stand up and put a hood on his face and say nasty things ...
"This country is a unique example of a salad bowl of people from all different cultures, class, color, creed have come together and made a great nation," he said. "Let's not vilify some people. We know what happens when you start vilifying one group of citizens of a country. It happened in Germany. The Jews were vilified and they ended up in the Holocaust. And we all think so badly about what happened. Let's not go down that slippery slope."
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami-Dade County Republican whose district includes part of southwest Broward, will play a role in his party's response to Obama's address.
Diaz-Balart will deliver the Spanish-language version of the Republican response. In a statement, he offered a preview: "The United States and the American people face grave challenges, all of which can be overcome with leadership in Washington, D.C., that understands the greatness of our country. We need a president who will unify, not divide; a president who will stand with our allies and stand up to enemies of freedom."
Wasserman Schultz offered a 180-degree different view of the coming speech and Obama's leadership. "I expect to hear [from the president] really the full arc of what he's been able to accomplish. The American people should be able to take great pride in the progress we've been able to make under President Obama's leadership."
With that in mind, we are asking our colleagues that have not already determined a State of the Union guest to consider joining us in bringing a Muslim-American constituent as their guest to the President's State of the Union Address on January 12, 2016. We must show our compatriots and the world that we will not be intimidated by fear into discrimination. There could be no stronger expression of support for our American values than sending this message of solidarity through the extension of this invitation.
Letter to colleagues from U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Keith Ellison
Over the past few weeks we have seen a shocking and alarming rise in hateful rhetoric against one particular minority population in our nation. Leading political figures have made offensive and outrageous suggestions that we should create a national registry of all people of one particular faith and that we should prevent any person of that faith from even entering this great country.
Predictably, the vile comments castigating the entire Muslim population of the world, including American Muslims, have translated into a shameful and dangerous rise of attacks on individuals and vandalism of religious institutions. The Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism recently told USA Today that they are "definitely seeing anti-Muslim bigotry escalating around the country." The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has received reports of numerous death threats against Muslim Americans.
This rhetoric and these actions are simply un-American. They undermine our values and weaken our ability to be a force for good around the world. The Pentagon reported that this rhetoric "bolsters ISIS' narrative" and endangers our interests abroad.
This nation was founded on the principle that all individuals have a right to practice their faith freely and share equal protection under the law. It was founded by individuals fleeing persecution, yearning to live in a land where they could express their religion as they chose. The fabric of this nation is woven from the myriad stories of escape, struggle, hope, hard work, and freedom that ultimately brought so many of our families here.
These families are our neighbors, our friends and our colleagues. We must use our voices and our actions to stand with those who are threatened by bigotry and discrimination. History offers brutal reminders of the consequences of ignoring the words of leaders who seek to identify and suppress one single religious group.
The United States of America always has and will remain a beacon of hope and light for all those around the world who yearn for the right to live free and for those fleeing persecution and violence.