West Virginia Republican Party Day or “GOP Day” at the Capitol on Friday, March 1, took an abrupt turn when the display of a poster in the rotunda connecting Muslim Congresswoman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) to the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 led to one person resigning their position, leaving another injured following a physical altercation.
Omar responded to the display by tweeting, “No wonder why I am on the ‘Hitlist’ of a domestic terrorist and ‘Assassinate Ilhan Omar’ is written on my local gas stations. Look no further, the GOP’s anti-Muslim display likening me to a terrorist rocks in state capitols and no one is condemning them!”
The poster, allegedly set up with the blessing of members of the GOP, showed an image of the Twin Towers during the attacks, with the text “’Never forget – You said…” above an image of Rep. Omar, the first of two Muslim women to be voted into Congress. Underneath, it read “I am the proof – You have forgotten.” The woman who set up the poster was seen in a t-shirt representing ACT! For America a known anti-Muslim, pro-Trump organization.
“The image of the twin towers with congresswoman Omar was absolutely devastating,” Ibtesam Sue Barazi, vice president of the Islamic Association of West Virginia, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting in an interview. “As you can see, I wear a hijab. Everywhere I go, I get stared at. We have a large community here in Charleston, and a lot of the women wear hijab or headcover. And so, therefore, wherever we go, we get stared at. Having that image associated with our headcover – that symbolizes our religion – is actually very devastating.”
The poster sparked a heated debate that spilled into the chamber of the House of Delegates. Irritated by the incident in the rotunda, Del. Mike Caputo (D-Marion) admitted to kicking open the chamber’s entrance, injuring the doorkeeper who held the door shut during the daily prayer and pledge of allegiance.
After meeting privately with the Republican caucus and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, Caputo has been removed from all of his committee assignments, including his positions on the Energy, Industry and Labor, and House Rules committees, for the rest of the legislative session.
“I admit I made a mistake from day one and I’ve apologized to everybody that I could absolutely apologize to,” Caputo told West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “There were a lot of things that happened this year that could have warranted some discipline, but obviously, for whatever reason, the Republican leadership has chosen now to go there. That’s his prerogative to do that. I will abide by his decision, but I’m not going to quit being a voice to the people in Marion County. I will continue to do that on the house floor for the next six days.”
However, many Democrats have referred to Caputo’s punishment as a possible double standard following the lack of response to Delegate Eric Porterfield’s remarks during this legislative session. Porterfield (R-Mercer) made many homophobic remarks, including comparing the LGBTQ+ community to the Ku Klux Klan and saying he would “see if [his kids] can swim” if they came out as gay. Despite receiving much backlash and many calls for his resignation, Porterfield has not faced the same consequences that Caputo has.
“We have disavowed those remarks. We’ve condemned them. We have distanced the House as far as we can distance the house from the content of those comments, and I’ll do it again right now,” House Speaker Roger Hanshaw said to West Virginia Public Broadcasting regarding Porterfield’s comments. “Those comments were inappropriate as far as I’m concerned and don’t represent proper civil discourse in a deliberative body, but they didn’t cause a physical injury. And a physical injury is the line that we’ve established that we will not cross.”
By the end of “GOP Day,” Sergeant at Arms Anne Lieberman submitted a letter of resignation to the House following allegations that she referred to all Muslims as “terrorists,” although she denies all allegations.
“There’s a fine difference between freedom of speech and hate speech,” Barazi said to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “When your statement and your action and your words may result in somebody taking that upon themselves – as they did in the synagogue in Pittsburgh – and take a physical action against a person because we happen to wear a headcover or we happen to be of a dark skin or we have an accent, that is not a freedom of speech.”
This fine line has been a hotly discussed topic throughout Appalachia given recent hate crimes in the region. Rabbi Victor Urecki of B’Nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston has been very vocal against public hate speech in the local community, especially in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue shooting. He believes that rather than normalizing these attacks, people should instead “weaponize goodness”.
“Right now, in the legislature, we have a tendency to weaponize evil acts and try to take those things that doesn’t [sic] represent West Virginia and try to legislate those things,” Urecki said to West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Other faith leaders have spoken out too in favor of mindful tactics to quiet hate speech. Father Brian O’Donnell, director of the Catholic Conference of West Virginia, believes the best tactic to fight prejudice and bigotry is to better educate those outside of the Muslim community what those communities really look like.
“I think the more and more that the story of our Muslim American sisters and brothers are conveyed to people. I think this should be a priority among all the members of the faith community,” O’Donnell said to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “…I think there has to be more of forcing people to take a hard look on what’s the real situation. It’s quite incredible to me that this visceral distrust and fear business keeps on being pumped out when you can’t find anything to justify it. It’s ridiculous.”
He also believes that no matter an individual’s personal beliefs, if they closely follow their scriptures, they’ll be able to defeat this “visceral distrust.”
“I love that people just study the facts and draw conclusions, but I would urge people to take a look at your scriptures,” O’Donnell said to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “We’re all religions of the books here. If you read those scriptures, God wants us to take care of the stranger among us. Jesus Christ explicitly identifies himself with refugees and the stranger among us in the Christian scriptures.”
Barazi hopes that West Virginia’s government officials will begin to set a better example for the state’s residents.
“I would like to see our government leaders set an example for the rest of the community,” Barazi said to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “They are in the people’s house. They represent the people. I like them to be leaders in all aspect of life, not just in setting up laws. The way they act is how the people follow them. If they act with dignity, compassion and love, and care towards everybody, treat everybody the same. Do not demonize the other. No matter what the other looks like or who they want to love. Treat them with kindness and dignity. That’s all we’re asking for. Treat us like a normal human being.”