Providence mayor creates panel to protect Muslim Americans

Scott Del Sole | WPRI-TV
Scott Del Sole | WPRI-TV

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has signed an executive order that he says is aimed at better protecting Muslim-American residents from discrimination.

The order, signed by the mayor Tuesday, establishes a new Muslim-American Advisory Board. The five-member volunteer panel will advise Elorza on policies that affect Muslim Americans in an effort to reinforce the city’s founding principles of religious freedom, Elorza said.

Elorza said the decision to establish the board came in response to Donald Trump’s election as president. During his campaign, the president-elect made mention of a ban on Muslim immigration and implementing a Muslim registry.

Trump and his aides have since walked back some of those comments, now saying he is focused on stronger vetting for immigrants from terror-prone nations. He recently appointed a National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn from Rhode Island, who has made controversial remarks against Islam. Elorza said he wants to ensure that Muslim Americans in Providence will be protected, regardless of what happens on the federal level.

“We’ve heard a lot, not only from the president-elect, but also from the folks that surround him, that really worry us and frankly, really frighten us,” the mayor said. “So that’s why it’s more important than ever that we come together at the local level.”

Monsurat Ottun, a Muslim-American Pawtucket resident, said Trump’s comments have caused concern in the local community. “Everyone is afraid,” Ottun said, adding that women who wear a hijab, or head covering, are particularly concerned because they are easily identifiable as Muslim by their attire. “It’s unfortunate that I’ve lived in this country my entire life, and I’ve never felt afraid like I do now.”

“I constantly have to watch my back everywhere I go,” she said.

Imam Mufti Ikram from the Masjid Al-Islam mosque in North Smithfield said he feels reassured by the mayor’s executive order, and hopes it sets an example for other cities.

“The cities across the nation are going to see a light, a hope for a community that is being bullied, that is being harassed by a lot of people,” Ikram said.

Another Imam, Muyideen Ibiyemi of the Muslim Community Center of Rhode Island, said his daughter was afraid to wear her hijab to school after the election. But he said there has also been a glimmer of hope; someone dropped off an anonymous card at MCCRI that read, “we are with you.”

Elorza’s order states that the panel was also created due to the “rash of hate crimes targeting minorities,” citing a statistic from the FBI that hate crimes against Muslims have increased nationwide by 67 percent since 2014.

Providence Police Maj. Oscar Perez vowed to enforce the law if hate crimes are perpetrated against Muslims in Providence.

“I want them to know that we support them,” Perez said. “If anybody decides to discriminate against anybody in the city…the city will prosecute to the extent of the law.”  A spokesperson for Providence Police said she hadn’t heard of any specific reports of local crimes against Muslims since the election.

The board will meet no less than twice a year and members will serve two-year terms. Elorza’s office said anyone interested in serving “should send a cover letter expressing interest and experience as well as a copy of their resume to mayor@providenceri.gov for review.”

This is the second announcement Elorza has made in anticipation of President-elect Trump’s administration. Last week, Elorza vowed to continue the city’s current policy of not referring undocumented immigrants who are not facing criminal charges to federal immigration officials. Elorza said he’ll made one announcement or hold one gathering each week to reinforce support for various groups in Providence before Inauguration Day.