Jim Galloway at the Atlanta Journal Constitution offers a roundup of the drama surrounding a congressional debate this week between Democratic Rep. John Barrow of Georgia and his Republican challenger Rick Allen, which included a last-minute venue change because Allen refused to debate at the “suspect venue” of an Augusta-area Islamic community center.
The debate, sponsored by the Islamic Society of Augusta in conjunction with a local newspaper, was scheduled to take place in the 800-seat community center, until Allen’s campaign refused to go there, calling it a “suspect venue” and attacking Barrow for “standing shoulder to shoulder” with a “Muslim cleric” (the man organizing the event was actually a doctor).
So, Galloway explains, the debate was moved to a smaller location (to the annoyance of some would-be attendees who were turned away), but the drama didn’t end there, as the chair of the Columbia County GOP “made every attempt to avoid” the 73-year-old Egyptian-American doctor who had arranged the debate and refused to shake his hand. This, Galeas later explained, was not because of the doctor’s religion but because he specializes in high-risk pregnancies, which can sometimes end in abortion.
The players were U.S. Rep. John Barrow, the Augusta Democrat, and Republican challenger Rick Allen, a local businessman. The only thing that separated the two candidates was air, a few issues, and a stenciled, paper sign denoting the sponsor of the event: The Islamic Society of Augusta.
…But the venue was changed from the 800-seat Islamic Community Center to a much smaller government venue.
One of the two parties involved was uncomfortable in such a place of worship, Augusta Chronicle president Dana Atkins explained to local talk radio host Austin Rhodes of WGAC (580AM). “It was the Rick Allen campaign headquarters,” Atkins said, when pressed.
“Barrow’s obviously close association with the head of the Islamic Center is his affair, but it does make this a suspect venue for us,” is the line that stood out in an Allen campaign press release.
Nonetheless, the debate limped forward. Then came Saturday afternoon, and — just as the crowd began gathering — the Hand Shake Incident.
The event organizer was 73-year-old Dr. [Hossam] Fadel, an Egyptian-American and now-retired physician recruited to Augusta in 1975 by the Medical College of Georgia. Also in the room was Dewey Galeas, chairman of the Columbia County GOP.
“I made every attempt to avoid the man. I walked by (Fadel), acknowledged him, thanked him for his hospitality, and then I walked on,” Galeas later said.
Fadel pursued and offered Galeas his hand. The county GOP chairman refused. Galeas said it wasn’t Fadel’s Muslim religion that motivated the slight, but his own “deep religious conviction over abortion.”
To explain: Fadel was brought to Augusta to establish a new specialty at the medical school called maternal fetal medicine. It concerns the management of high-risk pregnancies, which do not always end well.
Fadel declined to speak of the incident, except to say that Galeas later emailed him an apology, which he has accepted.
But it was the final question that was the likely focus of the crowd: How will you help other members of Congress understand that not all Muslims are terrorists?
“I think I do it by example, by treating every law-abiding citizen alike. That’s what the Framers intended. That’s what we should do,” Barrow said, reminding the audience that it wasn’t his idea to move the debate.
“I think that John Barrow should be asked the question, ‘Why he insisted that the debate be in the Islamic Center?’” Allen replied. “The idea behind this is, we want to make everybody feel welcome at every facility, okay?”
As for the tension between Muslims and their fellow Americans, Allen had this recommendation: “What I want, from everyone who is a citizen in this country, is to speak out – and to speak out heartily – against [ISIS]. That’s what I want to see from every religion. We must stop this radicalism,” he said.
The Islamic Society of Augusta has, in fact, already done so.
Correction: This post originally misstated the politician who reportedly refused to shake the event organizer's hand. It was Columbia County GOP chairmain Dewey Galeas, not Rick Allen.