WATERLOO — “Our Islamic Center here is awesome, Madam Secretary.”
That was the message the Rev. Wendi Gillan of St. Timothy’s United Methodist Church delivered to former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a town hall at the Masjid Al-Noor Islamic Center in Waterloo Wednesday.
The statement didn’t just reflect support for the center that was vandalized over the weekend. It also was a testament to the strength of the interfaith community in supporting one another and its efforts to form a singular community.
It was also the message Albright heard throughout her 40-minute stop.
Albright is in the state campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, but when she learned about the vandalism that had occurred at the center, she added the stop to hold an informal town hall about what it is to be Muslim is America.
“I really do think it is in communities that, here in America, people can understand each other as people and as believers in the commonality of what we all do and how we treat each other and what America is really about,” Albright told the 30 people gathered at the Islamic Center.
Although Albright occasionally emphasized Clinton’s campaign message of “stronger together,” her comments came across less as a campaign stop and more as a listening session.
The center was vandalized with paint of the name of the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has at times called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, and there was much discussion about what this election season has meant for people of faith.
“I hate to say this, I don’t like this election at all,” Albright said. "I love politics. This is a hideous election in so many ways, because it is done specifically to divide us. There’s just no question."
But first, she asked for input about the impact of the vandalism.
“That event shook us, for our kids, our families, but what shook me more is the overwhelming support from the community at large,” said Dema Kazkaz, president of the Islamic Center.
Elizabeth Collins of Waterloo said she thinks the “hateful rhetoric and the bigotry” that people see in the media helped foment the vandalism.
The vandalism discovered Friday night was the word "Trump" written on the north side of the building with red paint. Waterloo police had no suspects after the incident but have been giving extra attention to the area. Black Hawk County Republican Chairman Scott Adkins has condemned the vandalism.
“It becomes an issue when you have an overwhelming amount of media portraying something like Islam like it’s not,” Collins said. “You see more of the bad than you see more of the good.”
Kazkaz and Albright agreed the way to help change that narrative is for American Muslims — whether they’re immigrants or were born here — to share their stories. Kazkaz pointed specifically to the joy Muslims felt at reading articles about Ibtihaj Muhammad, the American Muslim who won a bronze medal in fencing at this summer’s Olympics.
Erin Maidan, a leader at the Sons of Jacob Synagogue in Waterloo, told Albright about the local interfaith group’s peace tree project that included the signatures and support from a few thousand community members.
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Albright demonstrated how difficult it can be to share a message of unity during this politically divisive season, by talking about her experience sitting next to a Trump supporter on an airplane recently.
“I thought, ‘I can’t talk to him anymore,’ and then I thought, ‘Actually, I have to talk to him,’” Albright said. “So, what has to happen after this is we actually have to do even more of what is going on, in order to bring the country back to the country that we love and has treated all of us in our diverse ways as the strength of the fabric.”
She said she is “very worried about what happens next” after the election in three weeks, but she thinks that sharing those stories will be an important part.
When Albright got political, it was mostly just to express the shared frustration and anxiety among the crowd about that “what happens next” question.
The anxiety weighing on the members of the Islamic Center is in part the question of whether the vandalism is an isolated incident.
“That’s the scary part … will it continue? That’s what we are afraid of,” said Zeeni Afridi of Waterloo. After the event, she said that anxiety exists whether Clinton wins the election or not.
Few of the audience members mentioned Clinton by name, but it was clear throughout the event they appreciated the power in the message “stronger together.”
“In the Jewish community, we know that if the Muslim community is under attack, so are we; we know that if they go after Muslim life, they’re going after our way of life, too,” Maidan said. “And there’s no separating that.”
Eric Branstad, state director of the Trump campaign, offered this response to Albright's visit: "No surrogate can distract from Hillary Clinton’s record of failure and corruption on the world stage. From Benghazi, to ISIS, to the failed Russian reset, to her irresponsible treatment of classified documents and selling of influence at the State Department, America is less safe because of Hillary Clinton. Madeleine Albright and other surrogates can try to defend Hillary’s abysmal record, but that dog just won’t hunt.”