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Islamic Prayer Proposal At Hartford Council Meeting Draws Fire

Jenna Carlesso Steven Goode

September 09, 2010

The city council's plan to diversify its pre-meeting prayers to include an Islamic invocation announced days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks has sparked an outpouring of angry calls and e-mails from infuriated residents.

City Councilman Luis Cotto, who proposed having local imams lead the invocations at council meetings Monday and Sept. 27, said the council's website has been inundated with criticism.

Cotto said his goal in having an Islamic prayer was to protest what he called "the current wave of Islamophobia" in this country. It was also intended, he said, as a commentary on recent events, including the proposed Sept. 11 Quran burning by the leader of a small Florida church and the uproar over a planned mosque near ground zero in New York.

"This is not unconscionable. There is a specific message there," Cotto said. "When we have countrywide issues happening we cannot just sit down and pretend it's not happening."

At a press conference called in response to the public outcry, council President rJo Winch said she was saddened by the rush of calls and e-mails expressing "racist views of hatred."

"Even in a city with 60 different ethnic groups and backgrounds, we've got a lot of work to do," Winch said.

She said that previous council meetings have featured Islamic invocations and that the public didn't react harshly to those. Council meetings typically begin with a Christian prayer, but rabbis and imams have also led the services.

"We have never turned down one clergy," Winch said.

She and other council members on Wednesday proposed turning Monday's prayer session into an interfaith invocation. Winch said the imams would still be invited to pray before the meeting, but they would have to share the floor with leaders of other faiths. In future months, she said, the council would return to its rotation of featuring different religious invocations at meetings.

Monday's service would also include a moment of silence for those who died on Sept. 11.

Councilman Jim Boucher said he is pushing for an interfaith prayer session to ensure that all religious views are included.

"Councilman Cotto was looking at September for the [Islamic] invocations and people are concerned about the Sept. 11 anniversary. We should be sensitive to that by having several major faiths there," Boucher said.

Cotto said he disagreed with the idea for an interfaith invocation.

"This is being done in response to bigotry," he said.

Though some calls and e-mails regarding the Islamic invocations have been positive, many others were "blatantly hate-filled," Cotto said. Winch described one caller as "irate to the point of outrage."

On his blog, Cotto posted various e-mails sent to city hall in reaction to the proposal.

"I truly thought seeing my classmate at Trinity [College] being convicted of corruption charges was about as deep of a feeling of shame regarding this city I could get. You topped it," one person wrote.

Kashif Abdul-Karim, the resident imam for the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford, who is scheduled to lead Monday's Islamic invocation, said he is disappointed with the public response.

"We know [prejudice] exists, but we've never seen an outcry like this in the city," he said Wednesday. "There is a new fear that's being generated. People are building stereotypes based on unknowns."

He said that despite the negative reaction, he still plans to go forward with his prayer on Monday.

Muhammad Ansari, the resident imam for the New Africa Learning Center in Hartford, was asked to lead the Islamic invocation at the council's Sept. 27 meeting. But he said Wednesday that he's not against moving the invocation to a later date. "It's not about 'We're going to do it regardless.' We look for the peaceful way," he said. "If it's going to cause a lot of problems. I'm not opposed to doing it another time."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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