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Under Fire for Prayer Stand

Decision by a GOP lawmaker to forgo an Islamic service at state House angers many.

March 05, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — When state lawmaker Lois McMahan chose not to participate in a Muslim prayer at the House of Representatives in Olympia, Wash., it was, she says, for private reasons, and they may have stayed private had she not answered the questions of a reporter.

Now her personal protest has become a public spectacle.

"It's an issue of patriotism," McMahan, a conservative Christian, reportedly said. "The Islamic religion is so ... part and parcel with the attack on America. I just didn't want to be a part of that.

"Even though the mainstream Islamic religion doesn't profess to hate America, nonetheless it spawns the groups that hate America."

Since the publication of those words, local and national Muslim groups have demanded an apology from McMahan, and state Republican leaders have condemned the legislator's actions as inappropriate and unrepresentative of the GOP.

It began Monday about 10 a.m., just after the Pledge of Allegiance and just before the invocation to open that day's House session. Attendance during the pledge and prayer traditionally has been spotty, particularly on Mondays.

Opening prayers are done by a variety of clergy. Priests, Buddhist monks, Protestant ministers, Muslim imams, even Native American shamans have opened House and Senate sessions. On this day, it was to be a Muslim cleric, Mohamad Joban.

Just before the prayer, McMahan said, she walked out to get a glass of water. Returning, she found that Joban had started his prayer.

"For personal reasons, I chose to remain off of the House floor," she said.

Afterward, a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer asked her reasons for "walking out," and she made the statement that has hounded her since.

McMahan says she stands by her statement but insists her action was not "a walkout" and certainly not meant to draw public attention.

"This is a nation founded on religious freedom," she said in a statement Tuesday. "I would give my life to protect those freedoms for all faiths. I defend the right of any individual from the Muslim faith to be represented in the House."

As many as 20 other state representatives were not in attendance during the prayer; many of them were milling around in the lobby. The Post-Intelligencer said another lawmaker, Cary Condotta, also walked out during the prayer, a contention that Condotta denies. Other legislators might have had a point to make, Condotta says, "but I didn't."

Condotta said he was simply "not interested."

Rita Zawaideh, head of the local Arab American Community Coalition, called McMahan's actions "childish," and passed the news story to national Muslim groups.

Late Tuesday, Nihad Awad, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, demanded that Republican Party leaders apologize to the Muslim community and repudiate McMahan's and Condotta's act.

The chairman of the state's Republican Party, Chris Vance, called McMahan's actions inappropriate and said "the head of the Republican Party is George W. Bush, not Lois McMahan." President Bush has emphasized that the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam, Vance said.

The most unperturbed party in the whole episode appeared to be Joban. Joban, in an interview, said he didn't notice some legislators were not in attendance and would not be insulted even if some had walked out in protest.

"If it's true, they did not know better," Joban said. "They probably have never met a Muslim. My fellow Muslims are citizens of America. We are dedicated to America. We love America. So I say to them [McMahan and other legislators], 'Meet me, talk to me, read the holy Koran, and then you will respect me."

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