About 35 community members and state figures met Friday morning in Charleston for a roundtable discussion on recent U.S. military involvement in the Middle East and Iran.
The event was organized and hosted by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Those present included local and state faith leaders, active-duty service members and combat veterans, citizens who were born in the Middle East, professors and high school students.
The roundtable was closed to reporters, but, afterward, some attendees spoke about the potential dangers that could arise from the conflict, including nationalist fervor and retaliation against people of color in their communities.
Among the participants was a woman who was born in Iran but has been an American citizen for more than 25 years. She said the increasing tension between the two countries has made her very nervous.
“Right now, honestly, it’s the first time in 26 years I’m worried,” said the woman, who requested anonymity to protect herself and her children.
Hate crimes against Muslims in the United States skyrocketed from 28 total incidents in 2000, to 481 incidents in 2001, according to FBI data. Some attendees said they hope another spike won’t follow these events like they did after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida terrorist attack.
Victor Urecki, rabbi at B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston, who participated in the roundtable, said that, whenever there’s growing tension between racial or religious communities, the most important thing is to reach out and communicate with each other.
“I remember prior to 9/11, everybody [went] to their respective corners, but we learned that’s not the way to bring people together,” he said.
After the recent anti-Semitic photos of the class of West Virginia correctional officers making a Nazi salute emerged, Urecki said the Muslim community in Charleston was immediately there for the Jewish community.
“When we had the anti-Semitic incident ... the very first people to respond [were] from the Muslim community. They just wanted to let us know ‘we’re thinking about you,’ ” Urecki said. “So when there’s a conflict, there are not Muslims and Jews in separate corners, there’s Muslims and Jews together.”
Lawrence Mullins, Jr., who enlisted in the U.S. Army in the early 1990s and is former president of the West Virginia chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said the perspectives shared by Muslim residents at the discussion affected his thoughts on the situation.
“This [roundtable] today actually opened my mind to a lot of different perspectives I never thought of before,” Mullins said. “How they spoke of the [Muslim] people; [they] do not hate us. It’s the government that hates Western ideals and societies. I’ve never heard that before, and I’ve never been able to speak to someone from those countries; so that really stopped and made me think twice about the way I think about the situation.”
He said it would be smart for younger enlistees to reach out and talk to people from these backgrounds, as well.
Ryan Atassi, a senior at Charleston Catholic High School and a member of the Charleston Youth Council, said it’s important for young people to research the situation and not let bias control their thinking.
“I think young people want to see all the sides of the conflict and they want to see it from a lot of different perspectives,” he said. “You’ve got to see both sides of an argument, in order to make a complete and total decision.”
Atassi said Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was a “horrible person,” but it’s still necessary for students to know whether President Donald Trump acted in compliance with federal law and the U.S. Constitution when he carried out the drone strike that killed the Iranian general.
In a statement following a briefing from top U.S. officials on Wednesday, Manchin said the Constitution makes it “clear that before the President commits United States Armed Forces to war against Iran, the American people’s representation in Congress must authorize the use of military force.”
“There was not an imminent threat to the United States’ homeland and the citizens within our borders. But there was a threat to our service members and American personnel in the region,” Manchin said in the release about the briefing. “Make no mistake, Soleimani was a terrorist who killed many American troops, and his death brings a measure of justice to those Gold Star Families.”