Oklahoma City mayoral candidate Carol Hefner, in Tuesday’s mayoral debate, made remarks about Islam that sparked an outcry from the local Muslim community.
Hefner, 60, has a history of making racist and Islamophobic social media posts. Near the end of the debate — in response to a question about posts where she called Islam an “evil culture” and compared President Barack Obama to Hitler — Hefner described her Lebanese family’s oppression from those practicing Islam before ending on a note of contempt for the religion.
“It is a very negative culture, and it does things that are oppressive, and I don’t agree with that,” Hefner said. “It’s just like slavery, I don’t agree with it. It’s insipid, it should be eradicated from our culture, from our world. Unfortunately, it’s been here since the beginning of time, I don’t know how I personally am going to get rid of it, but I would like to have those conversations.”
Hefner did not respond to The Oklahoman’s phone calls, but when asked via text if she meant that Islam should be eradicated, she said:
“Hate and oppression of all kinds is insipid and should be eradicated from our world.” In response to a question, Hefner clarified that she meant “insidious” rather than “insipid” in her original text.
When asked to clarify, Hefner said it was “inaccurate” to take her words as meaning any culture should be eradicated. She did not specify Islam in her text messages.
“All cultures make up our world,” she said. “I believe in freedom of religion. Love (and) peace between all religions as well.”
Folks in the Islamic community were quick to express their disappointment with Hefner’s remarks.
“Muslims in Oklahoma are no strangers to attacks on our faith,” said Adam Soltani, executive director of Oklahoma’s Council on American-Islamic Relations, in a statement Wednesday. “It pains Oklahoma Muslims deeply to hear these words in the largest city in our state and a place that Muslims call home.”
Muslim community responds with requests to meet
While answering the debate question about her social media posts, Hefner said she “might revisit” the comments she had made on social media and “have meaningful conversations with people across the city about” them. She then went on to describe the oppression her Lebanese family experienced before immigrating to America.
Her grandfathers, she said, wore cross tattoos on their hands and were denied food, clothing and housing because of their Christian status.
Imad Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, told The Oklahoman in a statement that after hearing Hefner’s remarks he reached out to her for a meeting.
Enchassi is a survivor of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, in which the Lebanese Forces, a Christian-based political party, killed hundreds of civilians. The exact number of victims is unknown.
“I can tell you that horrific incidents in history can be used to either bring people together or separate them,” Enchassi said. “I can tell you about Jesus and Mary’s names that were invoked by the perpetrators as they massacred 1,800 of my friends and family. But I would rather tell you about the people who invoked the names of the real Jesus and Mary I know who fed me, clothed me and gave me sugar candy.
“I can tell you about the cross that was drawn with the victims’ blood at my refugee camp, drawn by the massacre’s perpetrators. But I would rather tell you the story of the Red Cross that rescued me and cried with me as we together buried 1,800 victims in a massive grave.”
Soltani agrees that Hefner would benefit by meeting the OKC Muslim community face-to-face and said CAIR-OK plans to reach out to her.
“We believe very much in the power of communicating and building bridges regardless of differing views, therefore if Carol would be willing to meet with us we would gladly host her and treat her with the utmost respect and compassion,” Soltani told The Oklahoman via email.
When asked if she planned to meet with those in the Muslim community, whether she was elected mayor or not, Hefner told The Oklahoman via text, “Conversations will come.”
Support for Muslims from others in the religious community
The Muslim community is not the only group decrying Hefner’s comments.
Rabbi Vered Harris, spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel, told The Oklahoman via text that Hefner’s remarks were “very disappointing.”
“The local Muslim community has my respect and support,” Harris said.
The Rev. Shannon Fleck, head of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, said while Oklahoma politicians have made a habit of “demonizing” Islam, Hefner’s comments still came as a shock.
“Even though it happens with regularity, it’s always a surprising event,” Fleck said. “Just to have to revisit the hatefulness that people have for one another is really hard.”
Despite the hateful comments the Muslim community receives, Fleck said they are a welcoming, open community that upholds the idea of grace for others.
Religion editor Carla Hinton contributed to this report.