San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo’s travel plans to Qatar got axed by the City Council after they cited human rights concerns.
Liccardo was invited by the foreign ministry of Qatar to attend the country’s Environment and Energy Research Institute from June 11-13 and learn about their water conservation efforts. All travel accommodations and meals would be paid by Qatar, which makes it legally considered a gift to San Jose. On Tuesday, the City Council voted 8-3 to reject that gift.
“There have been charges with human rights violations from Amnesty International as well as the U.S. state department against Qatar, so I’m concerned about you going there,” Councilmember Dev Davis said. “We voted to restrict city travel to American cities for less than the abuses and allegations that have been leveled against Qatar.”
Councilmembers Raul Peralez and Sylvia Arenas also spoke out against Liccardo’s travel plans. They argued the trip was not necessary nor a good representation of San Jose’s values.
Liccardo agreed that Qatar does not espouse the same democratic values or freedoms as San Jose, but said the state has made efforts to democratize its nation. He said the county granted women the right to vote at the same time as men, and women can run for public office. He also noted Qatar was described as a strong non-NATO ally of the U.S. for more than 50 years by President Joe Biden.
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“There are many areas where I think we would all agree that we don’t agree with what Qatar is doing in its own country,” Liccardo said. “On the other hand, Qatar has been something of a beacon in many ways.”
He said Qatar has made notable advancements in its water conservation strategies, desalination techniques and technologies related to diesel that could benefit the city—which is the reason why he wants to go.
“I’m focused on water and I know that they’ve made great gains around providing a potable supply for their 3 million residents,” Liccardo said. “Nonetheless, if we don’t communicate, we don’t travel, then we won’t learn.”
He said in Qatar, not a single city dollar would be used. If he had to pay for an Uber, for example, that would be on his own dime. Liccardo was also planning on paying for his wife to join him.
Some members of the public supported Davis’ call against the mayor’s travel plans, while others said it would be a good learning opportunity.
Maha Elgenaidi, founder and innovation director of the Islamic Networks Group, said the conversation around Qatar at the council had underlying sentiments of Islamophobia—not because they were criticizing Qatar, but because certain comments seemed to blame Islam, or Islamic law, for the human rights abuses, rather than an unjust government.
Islamic law, also known as Sharia law, is a set of Islamic rules that mostly deal with religious practices, like attending funerals or personal contracts concerning marriage, divorce and inheritance. Elgenaidi said the way the council used Sharia to describe some of the injustices in Qatar are not related to what Islam outlines—so it’s not fair to blame Sharia or Islam.
“I am not for or against Qatar. There are human rights violations committed by all nations, including Qatar, and that is fair to criticize,” Elgenaidi told San José Spotlight. “My grievance is with the disparagement of Islam, which is directly consequential in impacting the level of hate and discrimination against members of the Muslim American community.”
She said the most glaring example of Islamophobia was when Arenas said she would be scared to go to Qatar as a woman, or when Liccardo said there were elements of Islamic law in Qatar’s legal system indicating that is what makes the state unjust. She said the conversation made it clear the City Council should go through anti-racist training.
“The council is conflating the worst aspects of Muslim behavior with Islamic law,” Elgenaidi said. “The mayor and City Council need to know that Muslims practice Sharia, or Islamic law, when women wear head scarves and pray five times a day, when they give their money to charity, when they fast during the month of Ramadan and practice their religion as other religious groups do.”
She concluded that the council “should also be educated on Islam and Muslims and women in Islam in particular.”
The trip would have included mayors from Detroit, Michigan and Arlington, Texas, as well as Bryan Barnett, president of the U.S. Mayor’s Conference, to learn about Qatar.
Contact Jana Kadah at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.
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