New York Times (Texas)
By David Montgomery and Manny Fernandez
January 26, 2017
AUSTIN, Tex. — Just over a week ago, white envelopes marked “URGENT REPLY ASAP” began arriving in the mailboxes of Texas Muslim leaders. Those who looked inside found an unusual document that turned out to be a highly inflammatory three-question survey investigating their views on elements of Islamic extremism.
The sender, as noted in the return address, was State Representative Kyle Biedermann, a central Texas hardware store owner who had officially become a member of the Legislature less than a month earlier. More than 400 surveys went out. Only one came back, Mr. Biedermann said.
The surveys were distributed as part of a campaign that Mr. Biedermann, a Republican, said was designed to expose “radical Islamic terrorism in Texas” and preceded a forum that Mr. Biedermann held on Thursday at the State Capitol to amplify that theme. But angry and insulted members of the Texas Muslim community, including prominent imams, are responding in a fierce pushback that included news conferences and at least one full-page newspaper ad.
The uproar in Texas came as President Trump, who as a candidate at times called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, is preparing to roll out immigration policies that could include sharp restrictions on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries.
Muslim leaders said Mr. Biedermann’s surveys threatened to further escalate a rising pattern of intolerance toward Muslims with the approach of Texas Muslim Capitol Day on Tuesday, in which Texas Muslims visit the Capitol and meet lawmakers. Former State Representative Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, who sponsored the creation of the biennial pro-Muslim observance in 2003, described Mr. Biedermann’s actions as “nonsense, xenophobic.”
“His treatment of Muslims is giving fuel to the fire of Islamophobia that is running rampant in our state,” said Sarwat Husain, founding president of the San Antonio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a national board member of the group. Speaking at a multifaith news conference at the State Capitol at the same time Mr. Biedermann was conducting his hearing two floors below, Ms. Husain said the letter was reminiscent of McCarthyism, calling it “very misleading, humiliating, intimidating, disgusting and downright offensive.”
The survey, and the meeting on Thursday, were aimed at sounding out Texas Muslims about their views, Mr. Biedermann said. But Muslims interviewed on Thursday said they were offended by the poll and did not return it.
One question asked if the respondent would support a pledge for religious freedom and safety from harm for former Muslims. Another asked if the Muslim Brotherhood should be declared a terrorist organization. The survey also asked if the respondent supported the Muslim Reform Movement, which espouses opposition to “violent jihad” or “violent Islamic extremism.”
Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, a statewide religious advocacy network that includes Christians, Jews and Muslims, said the group sent a letter to mosques and Muslim organizations urging them to disregard the survey. “What’s wrong with it is that an elected official in a position of power sent out that letter in a way that would have made someone think the survey was an official piece of business of the State of Texas,” Ms. Moorhead said in an interview. “It was an intimidating and misleading piece of communication on the part of a public servant.”
Mr. Biedermann, who was sworn in when the Legislature convened on Jan. 10, said the House leadership approved his use of a committee chamber to conduct his hearing, but the House speaker, Joe Straus, signaled his disapproval. “I believe it is wrong and offensive to single out any group based on their religion,” Mr. Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said in a statement released by his office.
Muslim leaders and supporters from other faiths said on Thursday that intolerance against Muslims has been on the rise both nationally and in Texas. As a Texas senator in 2007, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick boycotted the first Muslim prayer delivered in the Texas Senate, saying he did not want his presence in the chamber to “appear that I was endorsing that.” Armed protesters have also appeared outside mosques in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
In 2015, State Representative Molly White, a Republican from Belton in Central Texas, ignited a firestorm by demanding that Muslims in town for that year’s Muslim Day publicly declare their allegiance to the United States before entering her office.
Mr. Biedermann said his efforts were designed to increase public awareness about what he called an expanding threat in the form of Islamic terrorism that, he said, is spreading into the United States from across the southern border. In opening his hearing, he said that many crossing the border illegally came from countries with ties to terrorism, such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. “With the rise of radical Islamic terrorism at home and throughout the world, homeland security must be our top priority,” he said.
In an interview afterward, Mr. Biedermann said border security and the threat of terrorism were cited as the “No. 1 issue” by thousands of voters in his district when he was campaigning for the legislative seat, which he won in a runoff. He says his office is open to “Texans of all backgrounds and religions.
Mustafa Tameez, a Muslim who was a consultant to the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration, said the survey was “a roundabout way of trying to get people to sign some kind of loyalty pledge, and that’s not where the threat is coming from.”
“The people that are the real threat are individuals who have self-radicalized or radicalized over the internet,” Mr. Tameez said.
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