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St. Louis Muslims Are Seeking Open Minds — or Even Just a Truce

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"My goal isn't to change every single person's understanding of Islam; that's not my job," says Faizan Syed. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • "My goal isn't to change every single person's understanding of Islam; that's not my job," says Faizan Syed.

Faizan Syed doesn't have much time to counter with the bad press or engage with Karabell's complaints. He may have drawn mostly sympathetic ears to CAIR's open house — but just a few weeks later, he sees a chance to engage with a more outspoken critic.

Robert Spencer calls himself a "counter-jihadist." A best-selling author, blogger and occasional Fox News pundit, Spencer's views on Islam — particularly his campaign to stop the "Islamization of America" — contend the Koran and its teachings are aimed at violence and domination. In the Trump administration, that's not a fringe view. When Steve Bannon was still a radio host and not one of the president's key advisors, he called Spencer "one of the top two or three experts in the world on this great war we are fighting against fundamental Islam."

Two weeks after the CAIR open house, news breaks that a chapter of Young Republicans at Truman State University is hosting a speech by Spencer on April 13. The Muslim Student Association and its allies raise a ruckus, gathering hundreds of signatures seeking to cancel the event. The university, in response, scrambles to negotiate a compromise and avoid a contentious public protest.

Faizan Syed is that compromise.

On his website, jihadwatch.com, Spencer writes that attempts to silence him only prove his opponents are the modern-day incarnation of (yes, of course) Nazis. He also has a message for Syed.

"I'll be at Truman State University today anyway," Spencer writes in an April 13 blog post, "facing down the fascists, unless the university cancels my event at the last minute. That is, however, unlikely, as university administrators have already attempted to appease the Left-fascists by scheduling a lecture by Faizan Syed of the Hamas-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations, right before mine."

Spencer adds that he expects Syed's speech to be a collection of "deceptions, distortions, half-truths, and ad hominem attacks against me."

(Spencer's attempt to link CAIR to Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that governs the Gaza strip and is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., is based on decades-old conspiracy theories that the national CAIR website devotes pages to definitively debunking.)

After a three and a half hours of driving, Syed arrives in Kirksville, Missouri, and faces 220 students in the largest auditorium on campus. Police officers and campus security stand guard at the auditorium's entrances, and attendees are screened with a metal detector.

Kirksville is a quiet college town, and the campus' collection of brick buildings lies within a few blocks of student apartments and a small downtown strip. It's not a place that's used to playing host to controversy.

Even here, though, Syed finds supporters: An entire side of the room is occupied by students wearing white, a planned show of solidarity against Spencer.

This will not be a head-to-head debate. A faculty member explains that Syed will talk for 45 minutes and take questions, and then Spencer will do the same. But before Syed addresses the students, he turns on his phone and starts a livestream.

"Hello everybody," he says, looming over the screen. "I'm here at Truman State University about to give a talk before Robert Spencer, notorious anti-Muslim bigot and racist against Muslims."

Syed pans the screen to the security guards and local police officers at the auditorium's rear. The department is reacting to reports of threats on social media, for which both sides claim the other is at fault.

After a formal introduction, Syed begins his speech with a melodic Arabic prayer that dips in and out of the language's distinctive guttural vowels. He transitions without pause to English as photos of Muslims flash on a projection screen.

"Muslims speak every language in the world, they are from every country in the world, they represent every ethnicity in the world and they are part of every single community on the face of this planet," he says. He spends the next twenty minutes making his own introduction.

When he was four years old, Syed emigrated from Lahore, Pakistan, to Kirkwood with his family. In 2011, at age 23, he became the youngest person ever appointed as executive director of a CAIR chapter.

Syed took over rebuilding the organization's latent civil rights and outreach missions in St. Louis and Missouri, and that same year he led a delegation of Muslims to assist in rebuilding tornado-ravaged Joplin, where dozens of newly homeless residents had found safety in the town's Islamic Center.

One year later, Syed tells the crowd, "a man came and threw a Molotov cocktail at the building. The fire department got there in time and put the fire out."

Weeks after that, in the midst of Ramadan, a homeless Iraq War veteran finished the job, burning down Joplin's Islamic Center. The man, Jedediah Stout, was later convicted of arson after he tried tossing a Molotov cocktail at Joplin's Planned Parenthood facility.

Americans, Syed continues, should fight the temptation to live in fear of a version of Islam that only exists in the minds of extremists. Part of Syed's argument is that Spencer's version of Islam is just as unhinged as the bloodthirsty edicts raised by terrorists in the Muslim world.

"Are there Muslims who use Islam as a way to justify their improper acts? Yes, there is. What kind of idiot says, 'No there isn't'?" Syed says. "They exist in places that apparently don't have the best political governments in the world. They exist in places the U.S. has bombed and invaded, and they exist in a place that has a void of central government and leaderships."

Understanding that terrorism is a reaction to "anarchy and chaos," he says, and not an essential function of a single religion — this is the point he so desperately wants Trump supporters to accept.

"The question we have to ask ourselves is, are Muslims human beings — or are Muslims something else?"

Before his speech at Truman State, Robert Spencer lashed out at the "left fascists" who oppose his views on Islam. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Before his speech at Truman State, Robert Spencer lashed out at the "left fascists" who oppose his views on Islam.

But even before Spencer's turn at the mic, it's clear that Syed's question about humanity could be complicated by interpretation. During the Q&A session that follows Syed's remarks, a middle-aged man sitting near the front row asks Syed about a verse in Koran that, he says, instructs Muslims to deceive non-believers. Apparently, the verse even describes Allah as "the greatest deceiver of all."

The man asks, "Now, how are we as non-believers supposed to know what we're hearing from a believer, whether it's true or not?"

The CAIR director, who actually can read and speak Arabic, immediately looks up the verse on his smartphone and disputes the translation — Syed reads his version aloud as "Allah is the best of planners" — but a man in the audience seems unconvinced. He asks Syed to explain a different verse that concerns whether Muslims are permitted to befriend non-believers.

This too, Syed says, is a blatant misunderstanding, or at least a mistranslation, of the words in the Koran.

This is the "something else," Syed was referring to: The worry that Islam is a religion of unique corruption, or a source of hidden conquest whose true adherents follow a blueprint of violence. For people convinced of that, donuts won't help. Nor will Syed's smooth presentation.

The audience member's stubborn questioning echoes the argument Spencer spends the next 40 minutes making. Though Spencer's version features a blizzard of statistics, names and historical proofs derived from events centuries apart, it all funnels back to this suspicion: Maybe some Muslims say Islam is good, but what if they really secretly believe something else?

Spencer's other main point, which comprises most of his early remarks, amounts to lashing out at those who tried to get his speech canceled. He doesn't call them Nazis, settling for a more academic-sounding put-down.

"Any analysis of the motivating ideology of the jihad terrorists is all too often consigned to the realms of racism and bigotry," Spencer says. "The suppression is actively deleterious to the ability of free nations and free individuals to oppose and resist that terrorism."

Spencer spends a few minutes scoffing at Syed's statements about how Spencer is part of the "Islamophobia industry." Yet even Spencer seems to acknowledge that Muslims do face additional scrutiny for their beliefs.

"In reality, if there is any unjustified suspicion of Islam among any non-Muslims, Americans or non-Americans, then it is the result of terrorist attacks," Spencer says. "It was not I who did this."

Around three-fourths of the audience appears to be in open opposition to Spencer, and so his attempts at funny asides or self-depreciation are met with a brittle silence. But there are a few red "Make America Great Again" hats nodding along with Spencer's speech, plus a dozen or so members of the College Republicans.

One hat is worn by Andrew Egan, a freshman computer science student at Truman.

He calls Syed's speech "amazing," yet says that the issues of Islam and extremism that were supposed to take center stage became so bogged down in personal jabs and ambiguous sources that both presentations left him unsatisfied and unmoved.

"I think they're both reading into each other incorrectly," he says of Syed and Spencer. "They're reading only into the harshest and the meanest parts of their arguments, and that's what they're trying to attack. I don't think they realize that they both agree that not every single Muslim is violent."

Another student, a first-year named Sydney Shank, admits that she attended "because of the controversy," and that she'd been hoping to learn more about the issues before picking a side.

"What mainly stood out to me was they seemed to be talking circles around each other," she says. "None of the facts seemed to align."

At CAIR's open house, visitors could get henna tattoos, like this one urging people to "Make America Whole Again." - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • At CAIR's open house, visitors could get henna tattoos, like this one urging people to "Make America Whole Again."

Four days after the Truman showdown, Syed sits behind a desk in a back room of CAIR's St. Louis office. The three-button suit he wore to both the open house and speech at Truman State has been replaced with a faded black t-shirt from his own college days; it bears a logo of the St. Louis chapter of the Muslim Students of America, a mosque outlined against the Gateway Arch.

It's an image that might worry a person whose primary source of knowledge about Islam is Robert Spencer. Syed doesn't let that possibility bother him.

"My goal isn't to change every single person's understanding of Islam; that's not my job," he says. And anyway, he has more important things to worry about.

Chiefly, while the CAIR director chafes at the Post-Dispatch's coverage of the "Make America Whole Again" open house — apparently, the presence of several additional Trump supporters went unreported — he says it shows just how important it will be to meet Republicans and Trump supporters where they are. To do so, he says, CAIR needs to create partnerships with local Republicans. He wants the Missouri chapter and its new Muslim speakers to do more to interact with Young Republican groups and other similarly minded committees.

At the same time, Syed maintains the Republican Party must give up its intolerance of immigrants and its "Islamophobic narrative" — not just because it's the right thing to do, Syed says, but politically speaking, he believes the party needs to broaden its appeal to survive in the long term.

What that future Republican Party would look like, Syed can't say, but it probably won't look like Karabell's vision of red hats mixed with hijabs in a north county mosque. And regardless, it doesn't look like Karabell will be working with CAIR anytime soon. In the aftermath of the open house, the young GOP committeeman tweeted a demand to "all of my Muslim Brothers & Sisters" to boycott CAIR "for not fairly [representing] American Muslims."

Syed brushes it off.

"Eli is definitely in the Republican Party, but he's not a representative of the Muslim community," he says.

In addition to Karabell, state committeeman Robert Vroman attended the open house on March 26, the only other Republican official to do so. Still, Vroman is a self-described libertarian who favors the economic advantages provided by immigrants and is gung-ho for open borders — not a popular view in today's Republican Party.

But some local GOP representatives are also chafing at the Post-Dispatch narrative. They know that appearing close-minded is a bad look. They say it's not their fault they didn't show.

Committeeman Mark Comfort says he spoke by phone with Syed just days before the Sunday marked for CAIR's open house. In his telling, the scant attendance at the event lies not in Republican disinterest in Muslims, but miscommunication.

According to Comfort, he concluded the phone call with Syed under the impression that CAIR would reschedule the open house, allowing for a stronger showing from St. Louis County's large Republican committee.

"I thought they weren't going to go ahead with the event, and then we got our butts blasted in the Post for having such a poor showing," Comfort says. The Republican Party, he insists, is committed to serving all Americans, including CAIR and American Muslims.

But when presented with Syed's request for an active rejection of Islamophobia, Comfort recoils. The party official refuses to validate any accusation, even implied, that the Republican Party has an Islamophobia problem.

It's a strange parallel: Even as Syed believes his fight is with those who imbue hidden meaning and see divinely commanded deception within Muslims' utterances, Comfort is equally certain that those who accuse Trump or modern-day Republicans of racism are doing the same thing.

"We don't feel a need to become more open," Comfort says. "We respect the president and appreciate that he's taking action to protect us and enforcing the law. We aren't people who listen to his speeches and go, 'Oh look, secret racist wording.' And all the excuses of [claiming Trump ran] some kind of horrible, racist, xenophobic campaign — we listen to the same speeches and we hear patriotism and protection of citizens."

Comfort pauses, and adds, "But Faizan, he seems like a really nice guy and out to do good things."


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