The Hartford City Council Tries, and Fails?, to Show Solidarity With the Muslim Community
The city council steps into the international debate over Islamophobia, and then steps back
By Dan D’Ambrosio
September 14, 2010
First, Hartford City Councilman Luis Cotto’s plan to show solidarity with the Muslim community by inviting two local imams to give the opening prayers at September’s city council meetings ran into a buzzsaw of opposition from local residents and outraged interlopers from out of town.
As the e-mails of opposition, often vitriolic, piled up at city hall after a press release went out announcing the plan to invite the imams, Council President rJo Winch called a press conference, ostensibly to back Cotto and discuss “inclusiveness.”
But it soon became clear Winch was backing away from having the imams lead the council in prayer during such a sensitive month. And last week, Winch confirmed the council would observe a moment of silence in memory of the 9/11 tragedy at its meetings in September, and would not open with prayers from the imams.
Then, at Monday night’s city council meeting, the first of the month, Cotto’s plan to combat Islamophobia was further pummeled into near irrelevance as residents took advantage of the public comment period before the meeting to bend the council’s ear about more pressing local problems. Like the concerns of North Albany merchants that the MDC would put them out of business with its years-long project to fix the sewer system that has their streets torn up.
Or the comment from Hartford resident Tim Sullivan, who served on a task force formed to study the city’s finances. Sullivan warned that Hartford’s pension obligations would inevitably implode under the weight of unrealistic and overly generous benefits extended to retired city workers. Finally, local blogger Kevin Brookman admonished the council to “start focusing on local issues and make a name for yourself by fixing local issues.”
When the public comment portion of the meeting ended, Winch took a break before starting the city council meeting with the moment of silence she promised. It was not accompanied with any discussion of the turmoil caused by Cotto’s cancelled invitation to the imams, or reference to the 9/11 tragedy. Just an anonymous moment of silence.
Cotto told the Advocate last week he had talked to both Town Clerk John Bazzano and Winch before the uproar about his intention to invite Muslim clergy to the meetings and that neither objected.
“She said it was fine,” said Cotto of Winch.
Then came the e-mails, many of which Cotto posted online, charging stupidity and worse on the part of the council. Cotto said all along he took the action to show support for the Muslim community and to protest the wave of anti-Islam sentiment washing across the nation, most pointedly surrounding the so-called ground zero mosque in New York and the formerly obscure pastor in Florida who threatened to burn the Quran on Sept. 11.
The press release sent out by Cotto’s assistant on Sept. 7 called the invitation to have Islamic invocations at the September council meetings an “act of solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters” that was especially important “given the recent anti-Islam events throughout the country.”
Winch was quoted in the release, saying, “I feel it is very important that, as a Council, we project a culture of inclusiveness in the City of Hartford. Too often it is our differences that divide us. In my opinion, it is our combination of differences that make us strong.”
It was hardly the call to defend Muslims that Cotto was making, and at the press conference Winch confirmed that wasn’t what she had in mind when she agreed to Cotto’s plan.
Winch began by saying she had called the press conference for a “sad reason”: the outpouring of “hate mail” and “racist views” she and Cotto had received in response to the plan to invite Muslim clerics to the September council meetings.
“I spent 24 years of my life defending free speech, but this is deplorable,” said Winch, who served in the military. “These are e-mails from residents that are very troubling to me. The names that they call [people] show me the city of Hartford has a long way to go.”
But Winch said she wasn’t aware of Cotto’s intention to address the larger national issue of Islamophobia by inviting the Muslim clerics to the September meetings. She stuck to the themes of inclusiveness and the multi-ethnic nature of the city, and said explicitly she would never schedule an action intended to show solidarity with Muslims for the month of September.
“I don’t think outside of Hartford,” said Winch. “Everything is about Hartford.”
In an interview last week with the Advocate, Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford on Hungerford Street, who was supposed to give the prayer at Monday’s city council meeting, said the Muslim community would not take it well if he was now uninvited from giving that prayer. And he said more than just local residents are watching to see what happens in Hartford on Monday.
“This is about the civil rights of Muslims around the world,” said Abdul-Karim. “They came looking for the Muslim community to participate, then to tell us no because of bigotry and hatred toward Muslims and for them to agree with it and silence us is an insult.”