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Texas Rabbi: Despite False Media Narratives, Synagogue Attack Brought Jewish & Muslim Communities Together

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On Saturday, an armed British man named Malik Faisal Akram took a rabbi and three congregants hostage at a synagogue outside of Fort Worth, Texas, resulting in an 11-hour standoff that ended once the rabbi threw a chair at Akram, who was later shot dead by the police. The standoff — which left all four hostages unharmed — has been identified by President Biden and federal authorities as an antisemitic act of terror. We speak with Rabbi Nancy Kasten, who says despite false media narratives painting the hostage crisis as an outgrowth of hostility between Muslims and Jews, the local Muslim community mobilized in support of the Jewish community this weekend. She also notes Muslim communities are less protected under federal and state law, which “creates a lot of opportunity for very misguided and false information to be perpetrated about the Muslim community.”

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StoryJan 18, 2022Who Is Aafia Siddiqui? Synagogue Attack Renews Focus on Pakistani Neuroscientist Imprisoned in Texas
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Authorities are continuing to probe Saturday’s 11-hour standoff at a synagogue outside Fort Worth, Texas, when an armed British man took a rabbi and three congregants hostage. The standoff began when the armed man, who’s been identified as Malik Faisal Akram, entered the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, Saturday morning. The first hostage was released at 5 p.m. The other three escaped after Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker threw a chair at the gunman, who was later shot dead. Rabbi Cytron-Walker appeared on CBS Monday.

RABBI CHARLIE CYTRON-WALKER: He wasn’t getting what he wanted. He was getting — it didn’t look good. It didn’t sound good. We were very — we were terrified. And when I saw an opportunity, where he wasn’t in a good position, I asked — made sure that the two gentlemen who were still with me, that they were ready to go. The exit wasn’t too far away. I told them to go, I threw a chair at the gunman, and I headed for the door. And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.

AMY GOODMAN: Rabbi Cytron-Walker, who’s known as bridge builder in the Jewish-Muslim communities, had previously received training on how to act in the event of an active shooter. The man had come in, actually been there. The rabbi talked about offering him tea and being concerned about him.

During the standoff, Malik Faisal Akram repeatedly called for the release of the Pakistani neuroscientist Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, who’s serving an 86-year sentence nearby in Texas at a federal facility. Malik referred to Siddiqui as his sister, but the two are not related. In fact, her brother is an architect in Houston who had no connection to Saturday’s events, despite reports on Fox and ABC and other outlets that it was him.

Malik Faisal Akram is believed to have arrived in the United States in December and reportedly bought his guns on the street. His brother, who assisted police during the standoff from Britain, said Malik had suffered mental health issues for years. The Guardian reports the MI5 in Britain investigated Malik as a possible terror threat as recently as 2020. The head of the Houston chapter of CAIR — that’s the Council on American-Islamic Relations — condemned what happened Saturday, saying, quote, “This antisemitic attack against a house of worship is unacceptable. We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community.”

We go now to Texas, where we’re joined by Rabbi Nancy Kasten, the chief relationship officer for Faith Commons in Dallas, Texas.

Rabbi, welcome to Democracy Now! First, can you respond to what happened on Saturday, and actually the horror that the reason, perhaps, that these men escaped alive was because the rabbi and the congregation has been trained over and over again to deal with situations like this?

RABBI NANCY KASTEN: Thank you so much for having me today.

Yes, I do think that it was clearly an incredibly scary situation. And I know Rabbi Cytron-Walker very well. I’ve known him for years. We’ve done a lot of work together. And I know that a lot has been made of the training that he received to be able to deal with a terrorist situation like this, and that clearly came into play and was extremely important in the moment. At the same time, Rabbi Cytron-Walker has spent many, many, many more hours training himself to understand other people, to be compassionate with people that he doesn’t know very well and who may be foreign to him. And that’s what I think led him to invite this man in, in the beginning, and to give him tea and to be concerned about him.

And, you know, I think that — I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I do a lot of work with Rabbi Cytron-Walker on a lot of issues here in Texas. And we face a lot of sources of trauma in this state. We have children — one in five children is food insecure. We have the highest rate of the uninsured for medical insurance in this state. We had a freeze last year that was the result of inadequate preparation of the grid, and that has not been addressed by our state. We have a lot of reasons to be worried about a lot of things. And we have to practice relying on each other, getting to know each other and being able to help each other in times of crisis. And I think that was as much of Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s mental preparation for this event, which you never know when that’s going to happen. You can’t possibly know. But he was prepared in that way, as well. And I think we have to make sure that we remember that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rabbi Kasten, I wanted to ask you about the — some of the corporate or commercial media immediately began framing this as Muslims attacking Jews. Your response? And also, could you characterize the response of the local Muslim community to this attack?

RABBI NANCY KASTEN: The local Muslim community was horrified, shocked, was at the ready to offer support and anything that they could do. Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s wife is the executive director of an interfaith alliance in Tarrant County and works with a lot of Muslims, and particularly Muslim women, who brought food while she was waiting in the church to see what was going on, brought comfort. The minute that a friend of mine, Imam Omar Suleiman, was made aware of what was going on, which was very early — it was just shortly after I found out about it — he texted my husband and me and said, “Is there any way that I can help?” And he is a very well-known imam with a high profile and went — actually went to Colleyville to see if he could help with the negotiators in any possible way. And he put himself at risk, frankly, because that area — you know, in our area of North Texas, Muslims are regarded with a lot of suspicion. And my husband and I were concerned that Imam Suleiman not put himself in danger in his attempt to help the negotiators and law enforcement.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, to say the least, the brother of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui was perhaps in the most danger, because the networks kept repeating that he was the gunman inside, a well-respected architect in Houston.

RABBI NANCY KASTEN: Yes, I know. And, you know, again, the media can be blamed, but we also have to use our own ability to discern and our own knowledge of the people that we are in relationship with, and understand that the news cycle is going to do what it does. We’ve had enough experience with this. We have to pay attention to the trusted sources of information that we have.

AMY GOODMAN: Very briefly, The Texas Tribune reported this was the latest in a series of antisemitic attacks and incidents in Texas and beyond. Can you talk about those attacks?

RABBI NANCY KASTEN: You know, I think that there is an atmosphere of fear and fearmongering that has taken hold in the country, and Texas as a bastion of that, unfortunately. And unfortunately, it’s not limited to Jews. There is discrimination against people of color. There’s a lot of discrimination against Muslims, Asians and other groups. And it is fostered, in some ways, by our leadership in our state Legislature, in our national leadership by some members of Congress. And, you know, so it’s very worrisome.

But the Jewish community actually benefits from a lot of protection. Our governor, just recently, in the past legislative session, signed a bill into law called the Texas Holocaust, Genocide, and Antisemitism Advisory Commission, where he called upon a commission to teach people about antisemitism and the Holocaust. In the meantime, we have an anti-Sharia law in Texas that creates a lot of opportunity for very misguided and false information to be perpetrated about the Muslim community.

AMY GOODMAN: And the number one threat in the United States, according to the FBI, the link you have — and we just have 30 seconds — to, you see, to white supremacists.

RABBI NANCY KASTEN: Absolutely, absolutely. And again, I mean, I don’t want to label groups that are not white supremacist groups or people who are not particularly affiliated with them, but, once again, we do have members of Congress and state officials who enjoy the support of groups that are openly white supremacist groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rabbi Nancy Kasten, I want to thank you for being with us, chief relationship officer for Faith Commons in Dallas, Texas, not far from the Colleyville synagogue that was attacked on Saturday.

When we come back, we look at the complex case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, the imprisoned MIT-Brandeis-trained Pakistani neuroscientist serving an 86-year-sentence at a federal prison not far from the Colleyville synagogue. Stay with us.

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Who Is Aafia Siddiqui? Synagogue Attack Renews Focus on Pakistani Neuroscientist Imprisoned in Texas

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