POSTED ON NOVEMBER 7, 2007:
Books Like White Elephants
Sometimes a gift comes wrapped in a querulous packageWas Oklahoman Muslims' "holy book" sent to enlighten or incite?
Another turn in the ongoing "Qurangate" commotion at the state Capitol, might just be the full story, according to some of its main characters.
As the series of events have been popularly reported, a few dozen lawmakers returned a gesture of goodwill with insults and accusations, most citing their Christian faith as their motivation.
As the story goes, when members of the Governor's Ethnic American Advisory Council offered each member of the Legislature a complimentary copy of the Oklahoma Centennial Quran, one immediately refused, commenting simply that "Most Oklahomans do not endorse the idea of killing innocent women and children in the name of ideology."
That initial Quran-rejector was Rep. Rex Duncan, R-Sand Springs, whose rejection of the gift, it has been reported, accompanied a telephone call to council chair Marjaneh Seirafi-Pour to make sure no state funds were used to purchase the volumes.
Duncan's stance apparently created a bandwagon that was soon boarded by several other lawmakers--at the time of this writing, 33 others, most of whom are Republican, including Sen. Randy Brogdon, R-Owasso; Sen. Nancy Riley, D-Tulsa; Sen. Bill Brown, R-Broken Arrow; Rep. David Derby, R-Owasso, and Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa.
Within days of those reports, several religious groups publicly condemned the lawmakers for rejecting the gift, Duncan in particular.
"Hateful words inevitably lead to hateful actions,' said David Bernstein, executive director of the Jewish Federation, at a press conference held at Tulsa's Al-Salaam Mosque in response to Duncan's comments.
Duncan, though, told UTW that those popular reports don't tell the whole story, and don't put his comments in their proper context.
It all started with an e-mail, he explained, sent by Seirafi-Pour on Monday, Oct. 22 to all members of the Legislature.
Since context is everything, the entirety of the e-mail is as follows:
"In the spirit of commemorating Oklahoma's 100th anniversary of statehood, the Governor's Ethnic American Advisory Council (EAAC) is distributing the holy book of Quran to its legislative members.
"The Holy Quran is the record of the exact words revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. The Quran emphasizes inclusiveness and encourages involvement in the community.
"From the very beginning, Oklahoma's heritage has been very diverse and has enjoyed contributions of many different cultures and groups. This spirit of diversity continues as we move forward in our journey to the next hundred years. It is in this spirit that one of our Council members will stop by your office and extend to you a copy of the Oklahoma Centennial Quran as a gift.
"The growing population of Muslims in Oklahoma--currently estimated at 30,000 to 50,000--has had its roots in Oklahoma from the very early years. Whether immigrants to this great State or born Oklahomans, Muslim-Oklahomans are proud to belong to a State that is accepting, tolerant, and inclusive.
"If you do not wish to receive a copy, please feel free to let me know. We look forward to meeting you."
Following Seirafi-Pour's electronic signature, in smaller 7.5-point font lettering, the message concluded, "No public funds were used for this project. All funding were provided through private donations."
Upon reading the message, particularly the part telling him to feel free to let her know if he didn't wish to receive a copy, Duncan said he utilized the telephone number on the signature and called her, informing her that she need not deliver his copy.
While he was on the telephone with Seirafi-Pour, he took the opportunity to inquire about the project's funding, having overlooked the small print disclaimer that was included in the message.
After answering his questions, she asked Duncan to send her a request via e-mail not to deliver the Quran, so she could keep accurate records.
He acquiesced and wrote, "Please remove my name from the list of legislators receiving a complimentary 'Oklahoma Centennial Quran.' Please encourage your fellow Oklahoma Muslims to speak out and condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Muhammad and the Quran. Most Oklahomans do not endorse the idea of killing innocent women and children in the name of ideology."
He sent copies of the message to the rest of the House of Representatives.
Duncan told UTW that his intention was not to make a public statement about the matter, only make his objections known to fellow lawmakers.
"It was my intention to share with House members what I was doing. If I'd wanted to make a public statement, I would have done it with a press release," he said.
He said he didn't know if Seirafi-Pour told the press about the exchange or if another House member did, but he was soon contacted by a member of the media and asked to comment.
Soon after the story broke, Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, accused Seirafi-Pour of leaking news of the incident to the media to cast the 34 who declined in a negative light.
"Seirafi-Pour has complained that some lawmakers were rude when they declined the Quran. I don't understand why she rushed to the media and acted outraged that we turned her down," he said in a press release.
"What was the point of asking us if we wanted a copy? I contacted her last week and she could not provide me with any mean-spirited responses. In fact, she agreed to forward all of the e-mails, but I have yet to receive them," he continued.
Seirafi-Pour denied that the story reached the media through her.
"Despite what Mr. Reynolds said, I never contacted the media. Mr. Duncan is the one who went to the media," she told UTW.
When asked about the "rude" and "mean-spirited" responses, though, she refused to e-mail them to UTW, offering to mail hard copies instead.
While she apparently got over her discomfort long enough to e-mail members of the Legislature about the Centennial Quran, she told UTW, "I don't feel comfortable e-mailing stuff. It can be altered electronically and it's time-consuming to forward copies to all the different members of the media. I'd rather mail it."
So, that's something we'll be looking forward to receiving after this story goes to print.
Seirafi-Pour said she gave printed versions to reporters from National Public Radio and the local dailies at the state's two largest cities.
Duncan himself provided a copy of his remarks, and how rude and mean-spirited they are can be judged by the reader.
"It's become obvious that this organization has an agenda," said Sen. Brogdon, Quran-decliner and Republican from Owasso.
"I respectfully decline this gift. Thank you," was his e-mailed response to Seirafi-Pour.
While Brogdon is no stranger to public eye, he said he didn't expect that declining the book would land him in news headlines.
"I turn down information and literature all the time. As a legislator, I'm offered stuff constantly," said Brogdon.
"Planned Parenthood comes by my office to offer me literature, and I tell them, 'Thank you, but I don't need to read that," the outspoken pro-lifer said.
"For me, personally, I believe in the Bible, and I just honestly thought, 'I don't need a Quran,'" he also said.
Duncan's motivations went a bit farther.
The reason he declined the Quran gift, he told UTW, is that "when somebody offers you a gift with strings attached, it's not really a gift."
Those strings, he said, were the statements about the Quran's purported status as "the exact words revealed by God."
"The message essentially said, 'Here's a copy of the Centennial Quran and here's what it means to accept it," said Duncan, explaining that he understood acceptance of the gift as an endorsement of her comments about it--something he said he could not, as a faithful Christian, do, since the Quran and the Bible are mutually-exclusive in their teachings.
Seirafi-Pour, though, said the Quran was not offered as an effort to proselytize.
"As a Muslim, that's what I personally believe. I'm not here to discuss religious beliefs and prove that I'm right and everyone else is wrong. I'm just following the executive order for our council," she said.
"I'm not trying to convert anyone. I don't even do that on a personal level in my everyday life," she added.
Gov. Brad Henry issued an executive order in May 2004 that created the Ethnic American Advisory Council to advise him and other public entities on "problems concerning the Ethnic American community," among other responsibilities.
Reynolds, though, recently called on the Governor to either overhaul the council or disband it.
"Governor Henry, why would you have an 'Ethnic Advisory Council' that includes members from only one ethnic group? The council should either be reformed to reflect its apparent mission or preferably disbanded," he said.
Paul Sund, the Governor's spokesman, told UTW that Henry doesn't plan to disband the council.
"It plays an important role for the large community of Middle Eastern immigrants living in Oklahoma. Other boards created for Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans and other groups are equally important because they provide a forum for discussion of issues that are often unique to a particular ethnic community," he said.
Prior to the interview with Seirafi-Pour, UTW asked Sund if being Muslim was a prerequisite for membership.
Also, he was asked why it's called the vague "Ethnic American Advisory Council" rather than the "Middle Eastern American Advisory Council," since, according to the wording of the executive order, a Middle Eastern ethnic background is a requirement for membership.
"I do not know if all members are Muslims because we do not ask appointees to any board to disclose their religious affiliation," answered Sund in an e-mailed response.
"I do not know why that particular name was chosen for the board. I doubt that critics of the council's Quran gift would be less upset if the panel had a different name," he also said.
Since he didn't know, UTW asked him if he wouldn't mind trying to find out, but Sund hasn't responded to the request.
Seirafi-Pour, though, took her best shot at answering, and in so doing, revealed a different understanding of the council's purpose.
"The name wasn't of my choosing, but we were happy with it. You'd have to ask the Governor why we're called that," she said.
She offered her best guess, though.
"The thing is, Islam is not limited to the Middle East--there are Muslims of West African descent and other nationalities from around the world," said Seirafi-Pour.
"If it had been called the 'Middle Eastern American Advisory Council,' it would have limited membership to Muslims of Middle Eastern descent," she added.
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