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A Christian pastor in the nation's third-most-populous county tried to stop a Muslim man from serving in the local Republican Party because of his religion.
The massive jurisdiction of Harris County, Texas with 4 million residents in Houston and its surroundings has more than 1,000 precincts, and the Republican Party appoints a chair for every single one. Approving the people picked by a committee to fill some of those spots should have been a run-of-the-mill task.
But Trebor Gordon stood up at a meeting of the county's GOP on Monday night. He said that Syed Ali a 62-year-old Houston resident who has been a loyal Republican since the Reagan administration should not be appointed.
Gordon said that Ali should be blocked "on the grounds that Islam does not have any basis or any foundation. It is the total opposite of our foundation."
"Islam and Christianity do not mix," Gordon said. Party chairman Paul Simpson said that Gordon serves as chaplain for the Harris County Republican Party and is a part-time pastor at a Houston-area church.
"During my prayer, this man did not bow his head. During the Pledge of Allegiance, he did not utter a word. He didn't even try to fake it and move his lips," Gordon said at the meeting, where attendees said nearly 200 people were present. "If you believe that a person can practice Islam and agree to the foundational principles of the Republican Party, it's not right. It's not true. It can't happen. There are things on our platform that he and his beliefs are total opposite."
Seeing her party chaplain make such a motion, precinct chairwoman Felicia Winfree Cravens said she was stunned. "There were more shocked faces in that room than you could count," she said. Cravens' camera happened to be rolling she said she was showing a friend how to use the new Facebook Live tool, so she was broadcasting the otherwise humdrum party meeting. Suddenly, she found herself capturing the discussion of Ali's religion on tape.
After Gordon, a former Houston City Council candidate, made his motion that Ali should not be a precinct chair, Simpson asked Ali to step forward so the people in attendance could see him. Ali did.
The Houston area has more Muslim residents than most other parts of the United States. More than 1 percent of the city's residents are Muslim, and the city has more than 80 mosques and at least 10 Muslim schools, according to the Houston Chronicle.
The debate over the motion was brief but contentious. One man brought up the party's rules prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion. That prompted another man, identified by Simpson and Cravens as precinct chair Mike Robertson, to stand up to ask whether Islam is a religion at all.
"Can I have a point of information?" Robertson said. "Has there been any factual information provided that Islam is a religion?"
Ali did not speak during the debate. One precinct chairman, Dave Smith, came to his defense. "In our founding document, the Constitution, even back 230 years ago, when our Founding Fathers were establishing rules by which our country would be governed, they specifically put in there: no religious test," Smith said. "No religious test is good enough for the Founding Fathers. It's good enough for me."
Simpson called for a voice vote on Ali's nomination. In the video, numerous people can be heard agreeing with Gordon's motion to block him. But in person, Simpson and Cravens both said it was clear that the majority voted in Ali's favor. Simpson declared that the motion failed, and Ali was instated.
Ali told The Washington Post on Wednesday that he was surprised but not hurt by Gordon's motion. "It doesn't bother me at all, as a Republican, as an American, as a Muslim," he said. "Everyone's entitled to their view." He said he appreciated that the majority of the people in the room voted in his favor, and many people he had never met before that night approached him after the meeting to offer "nothing but encouragement."
"After that incident, God blessed those people who come to me," Ali said.
Ali, a Houston resident, said he sees Republican values as deeply consistent with Muslim values. Both the party and the religion value preserving life, helping the needy and treating all people equally, he said. "I am happy and more stronger than before. I'll do whatever I can do for the country and the party and the people."
Gordon and Robertson did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Simpson said Gordon was entitled to speak his thoughts. "I think it was healthy for it to come to a vote and not just be shot down. I'm a real big believer in letting people speak, state their opinion," he said. He added that he disagreed with Gordon: "I'm in agreement with the vast majority of our grass roots that we don't have religious tests for those who want to fight for our country and help elect Republicans and advance conservative principles."
Cravens said that as someone active in Republican politics, she is seeing much more anti-Muslim sentiment in her Facebook feed lately, in conjunction with the rise of Donald Trump. "If there were a hashtag more intense than .NeverTrump, I would be it," she said.
But she does not know whether Trump has increased anti-Muslim viewpoints or just exposed them. "I don't know how much of that is pre-existent that he's tapped into, or how much of that is him making people feel safe to say things like that, or if I just didn't notice it," she said. "I wouldn't want to lay at the feet of Donald Trump something that he merely capitalized on."
Compared to Facebook posts, she would rather hear such views aired face to face at a grass-roots meeting like Monday night's, the most local and most personal level of politics, she said. When the pastor and the Muslim candidate share the same room and the same goal of drumming up more Republican votes in their county, "meetings like that are where hearts and minds get changed."