On Wednesday, Feb. 18, Dr. Nadim Koleilat, a surgeon from Bismarck and a member of the Muslim community there, was to have delivered an invocation to the state House of Representatives.These invocations are a long-standing tradition for the Legislature. A committee organizes spiritual leaders of a diverse cross-section of faiths to deliver an address intended to uplift and inspire before the floor sessions in the House and Senate begin.
I cannot say if an Islamic leader has delivered an invocation to the Legislature previously. None of the lawmakers I spoke with could recall a previous instance, but typically everyone from Lutherans and Catholics to Native American leaders and rabbis have delivered an invocation.
Dr. Koleilat, however, was prevented from delivering the invocation after some members of that chamber complained. Instead he delivered his invocation to the state Senate, where he was welcomed without incident.
At first the complaints were tied to the fact that it was Ash Wednesday, a holy day for Christians. Rep. Dwight Kiefert, a Republican from Valley City who was the most outspoken in opposition to Koleilat’s invocation, told me in a radio interview that he just felt it would have been more appropriate to have a Christian leader give an invocation on Ash Wednesday.
But postings on the District 24 Republicans Facebook page (which Kiefert represents) made it clear that many objected to Koleilat’s invocation because he is a Muslim.
On Saturday, in emails to some of his fellow lawmakers, which were forwarded to me and confirmed to be authentic, Kiefert hinted at a possible boycott should Koleilat be invited back to the chamber to deliver the invocation on a day not associated with Christians.
“They have invited him to come back on Wednesday, and I am sure the media will all be there to see if I will pray to Allah,” Kiefert wrote in the email sent Saturday, Feb. 21. “I don’t think so, many will not be on the floor.”
In other words, the problem was never that Koleilat was speaking on Ash Wednesday. It is that he’s Muslim.
I should note now that Kiefert does not speak for all North Dakotans, or all Republicans.
“To be clear, Dwight Kiefert speaks for himself. He certainly does not speak for the North Dakota Republican Party,” North Dakota GOP vice chairman Jim Poolman told me.
“I honestly don’t know any other lawmakers who support his statements,” Rep. Roscoe Streyle, a Republican from Minot, told me. “I for one need all the prayers I can get and appreciate the many pastors, priests and anyone who would take time out of their day to give meaningful and uplifting prayers before each session.”
“Nadim Koleilat is a doctor who spends his days healing sick people in Bismarck,” Sen. Kelly Armstrong, a Republican from Dickinson, said. “He gave up a few minutes out of what must be a busy schedule to offer us a thoughtful prayer last Wednesday, after which he placed his hand over his heart and pledged allegiance to the same flag I do. Anyone willing to do that deserves our respect and gratitude.”
I could go on, but let that sampling of statements suffice. What’s clear, despite pushback from some, is that Kiefert does speak for many citizens of North Dakota. Ugly social media postings and hateful emails have piled up since I began writing about this issue. There are a great many people in this state who feel it’s inappropriate for a Muslim to address the Legislature at all.
These are not isolated cranks. These are our friends and neighbors.
We must not forget that there is a very real problem with extremism in Islam, but that issue is beside the point. North Dakota has a very real problem with some citizens holding anti-Muslim sentiments up to and including some of our political leaders.
It’s time to be acknowledged and stopped. The problem with Islamic extremists like ISIS is that they feel those who do not adhere to their faith are a lower order of human being. How can we have the moral authority to oppose those sorts of monsters when some of us oppose Muslims simply because they’re Muslim?
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