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In Aftermath of Orlando Massacre, Turner Calls for Unity at Sister Cities Iftar

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By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: The loudest applause of the evening went to Congressman Al Green after he started a fiery and rousing speech – one of his finest – in that loud pulpit voice and drove home his points. “No one, no man who would bar 1.5 million Muslims from entering this country will be allowed to become President of the United States.”

He had ignited the audience of an estimated 1,500 people in the Bayou City Event Center. “I love Islam,” he continued. “We will not allow people to hijack Islam. Stand up to show you care.” And they all stood up, clapping. “We must defend the LBGT community.” He was referring to the massacre that had occurred the night before in the gay Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

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In the wake of the tragedy, the mood was somber with each speaker expressing outrage at the incident at the Annual Houston Iftar Ramadan Dinner with the Mayor of Houston this past Sunday, June 12. It was organized once again this year by the Abu Dhabi, Baku, Istanbul and Karachi Sister City Association along with the Islamic Society of Greater Houston and other collaborating Muslim groups across the Bayou City. Despite heavy rains earlier that afternoon, the large banquet hall was packed.

The long list of speakers spoke of the horror of the killings and how it tarnished the peaceful nature of everyday Muslims. The emcee of the evening, Mona Khalil, welcomed the guests and guided the 99 minute long program along – abbreviated by 29 minutes due to the late arrival of the chief guest and keynote speaker Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. The speeches and other proceedings had to end by precisely 8:24pm for the Adhan or Call to Prayers and Iftar or Breaking of Fast. After recitation of a verse from the Quran by Imam Nihat Yesil of the Blue Mosque of Houston, Khalil asked for a moment of silence for the victims of Orlando.

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After the US National Anthem sung by Zara Khan, M. J. Khan, the President of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston and Chairperson of the Event and a former three-term Houston City Councilman said he had a different speech prepared but had to change it due to the massacre. “What kind of society is this where homophobes and racists roam the streets?” he demanded. “We have to rise up and say ‘No more … it will not be tolerated in our society’.”

Muhammad Saeed Sheikh, President of the Sister City Association and Coordinator of the Event welcomed each of the long list of guests, elected officials, sponsors, Consular Corps and media. He was followed by Dr. Dogan Koc Executive Director of the Gulen Institute at the University of Houston who also departed from his prepared speech due to the killings. “Today the image of Islam is not very positive,” he said, “It is associated with terrorism which is the exact opposite of what it is. Not only in America but also in Europe.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett kept his remarks short, preferring to speak about how isolated the East Texas town he grew up in was “with no Muslims, Jews, Latinos or Asians” but his fascination with other cultures led him to read the Bible, English versions of the Gita and the Quran.

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Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee followed with a call to “come together and shed off these discriminations.” She recalled the memorial service for boxing legend Mohammed Ali that she had just returned from and said “his love was overwhelming,” exclaiming she was proud to say ‘We are Ali’ and “we are one, we are together, never to be divided.”

Then strode up Green and energized the crowd. Both he and Lee also presented the organizers with proclamations and a group picture op on stage.

Imam Wazir Ali of Masjid Al Quran and Masjid W. D. Mohammad abbreviated his own speech only to say that, pointing to Emmett, in contrast he was a West Texas boy whose family was the only Muslim one in El Paso “and we spent the days of Ramadan helping others.”

Murad Ajani, the President of the Agha Khan Council introduced Mayor Turner by reading his short biography. “I had prepared a different speech for today. I just want to say that if any part of your body aches, your mind & brain does not work properly,” Turner began, adding, “Similarly if Islam is hurting, Christianity is hurting, Judaism is hurting and Humanity is hurting, how can the City of Houston function? We will all need to come together, and work for peace & harmony in ourselves, our societies, our world, and help heal everyone out of the pain.”

Turner also delivered his oft spoken comments on how the fourth largest city in the US was also the most diverse. Impressed by the crowd at his first ever Iftar as Mayor, he concluded that “in the years to come, we will need even bigger place for this growing event of significance.” Imam Shahid Rizvi of the Al Noor Society of Greater Houston led the Mughreb Prayers. During dinner, a video message from Texas Governor Greg Abbot was shown in which he extended his best wishes to Muslims around Houston and the world.

A buffet dinner catered by Tempura Restaurant which has done so for the past several years, Turkish DNR Grill, and Greek salad was served. Young volunteers from the Ismaili Muslim Community, Helping Hand for Relief & Development and the City of Houston Office of Protocol & International Affairs helped with the arrangements.

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