After igniting a firestorm of criticism last week for suggesting that Muslims visiting her legislative office would be asked to "renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws," state Rep. Molly White said Monday she has nothing to apologize for — though she might have used her words differently.
"Hindsight's 20-20," White said of the Facebook status she posted on Texas Muslim Capitol Day last week. "I never thought it was going to go viral. And I thought it was just to folks that were in my district. I didn't know that there [were] fringe groups out there watching every word you say and things you do."
Speaking to The Texas Tribune in her Capitol office on Monday afternoon, the freshman Republican legislator and anti-abortion activist from Belton said no one who visited her office on Texas Muslim Capitol Day was asked to say or do anything before speaking to her legislative staff. But had she been there, she said, "I would have asked them if they would renounce terrorism."
White said her comments were directed not at all Muslims, but at the organizer of Texas Muslim Capitol Day, the nonprofit Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR has organized such a day since 2003 as a way of bringing Muslims, including schoolchildren, to Austin to learn about the political process and state lawmakers.
"When I hear CAIR, I get red flags," White said, because the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has designated CAIR as a terrorist group. The United States government does not. White said Muslims themselves need to become more educated about the group, adding, "If you're not diligent into finding out who these folks are and what their beliefs are, then I believe you're being careless."
White also said that the executive director of CAIR's Houston office, Mustafaa Carroll, announced during Texas Muslim Capitol Day in 2013 that, to quote White, "if you're a true, practicing Muslim, you're above the law of the land."
"And so that's what prompted me to make sure that my staff understood who we were going to be dealing with that day, and where they stood," White said.
A video taken of Carroll's statements at Texas Muslim Capitol Day in 2013 does show him saying, "If we're practicing Muslims, we are above the law of the land."
The quotation, however, comes at the end of a longer passage that places it in full context, and indicates that Carroll's intent was to express the opposite of what White alleged. Carroll was stressing that no one wanted to make Sharia "the law of the land."
"Following the law of the land is part of Sharia," Carroll said, according to the video. "And we follow the law of the land. In fact, Muslims, if we're practicing Muslims, we are above the law of the land. The law doesn't affect us at all."
Speaking on Monday, Carroll said he could understand why his words may have been misconstrued. But "it's definitely not intended to mean we don't have to follow the law," he said. By saying Muslims were "above the law," he said, he meant that true, practicing Muslims should behave in a way that would put them above any possibility of breaking the law. "If you're a practicing Muslim, then you should be above all of that," he said.
White did not immediately respond to a request for her reaction to Carroll's explanation.
Carroll also said that his group's designation as a terrorist organization by the UAE was the result of "ugly politics" overseas, pointing out that the U.S. government does not agree with the UAE.
In November, a State Department spokesman told reporters that the U.S. does not consider CAIR a terrorist group, and that the department was asking the UAE for more information on its decision. The designation also startled many experts and foreign governments, including Norway, which asked the UAE why it included one of the country's largest Muslim groups on its list of terrorist groups.
If White could go back and redo the events of Texas Muslim Capitol Day last week, she said, she would have clarified her comments sooner so that everyone knew they were directed at CAIR, and not all Muslims.
But "if [Muslims] have come here to America to follow the American dream and to pursue all the things that we all like about America, I don't think they would be offended" by her comments on social media, White said, adding that Muslims she knows in her district told her over the weekend that she is doing the right thing.
Many Muslim groups and others denounced White's comments last week and over the weekend. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said in a statement that "legislators have a responsibility to treat all visitors just as we expect to be treated — with dignity and respect. Anything else reflects poorly on the entire body and distracts from the very important work in front of us."
White has also come under fire for earlier comments she posted on social media. In June 2014, responding to a commenter on Facebook, she wrote, "Muslims cannot be trusted no matter how peaceful they appear."
During the interview Monday, White said she does not believe that applies to all Muslims. But she did not hesitate to express wide-ranging suspicions about the religion.
"If Muslims feel like Islam or their prophet Muhammed is being insulted, I mean, it's serious," she said. "They want death. They want prosecution."
She added: "It's not just a religion. It's a whole ideology; it's a whole way of life. And their belief system is so contrary to our American ideology of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship."