A weekend of angst over Islam: Guns in Richardson, marchers in Dallas and a quiet conversation in Irving

By Daniel Houston and Avi Selk
Source: The Dallas Morning News

A clash over Islam that started in Irving is splintering, shifting and spreading through North Texas this weekend.

Anti-Islam protesters took their guns to Richardson today, even as hundreds of peace marchers condemned their message in Dallas.

Meanwhile, an Irving mosque at the center of the storm is turning crowds and cameras away as it tries to hold a quiet conversation with its Christian and Jewish neighbors.

The Dallas Morning News will cover the weekend’s events, which begin this afternoon with dueling rallies:

GUNS IN RICHARDSON

It’s been nearly a year since false rumors of Islamic rule in Irving began to stir anti-Muslim angst in the region.

The city’s reputation went viral in September, when police arrested a Muslim high school freshman who made a clock to show his teachers.

But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago — when a handful of protesters took rifles to the Islamic Center of Irving — that the suburb transformed from a discussion point into a public stage in the United State’s debate about Islamophobia.

Members of the Bureau on American-Islamic Relations (BAIR) had traveled to Irving from cities across North Texas. Many of them believe Islam is inherently violent and some were convinced that Irving’s mosque had harbored an illegal Shariah court—a rumor that grew out of a voluntary mediation service for North Texas Muslims called the “Islamic Tribunal.”

Similarly, BAIR’s event page for today’s rally claims the Richardson-based Islamic Association of North Texas “has a documented history of funding terrorism.”

The News could find no such documentation, aside from false blog reports that the Richardson mosque was implicated in a famous terrorism trial.

And BAIR spokesman David Wright’s suspicions sounded more nuanced in an interview with The News.

He said that two people convicted in the 2008 Holy Land Foundation trial lived in Richardson, and that he wants authorities to investigate the city’s major mosque.

Wright said he has been trying to meet with members of the mosque. He wants to open up their books to assure they are not actively funding terrorist organizations.

“If I’m wrong in the end, fine: I’m wrong,” Wright said as he prepared for Saturday’s demonstration. “Nobody really got hurt. What’s the big deal?”

The big deal, as critics see it, is the long-barreled guns BAIR’s members bring to their protests — including their first rally outside the Richardson mosque in October.

Wright said the guns are only to protect his group from Islamic extremists who might act out violently if they see Islam being disrespected — similar to what happened in May in a foiled terror attack in Garland.

“I do not like the fact that it may scare children or that it may scare women,” Wright said. “I do not like that at all. I’m not a monster.”

The mosque’s imam, Shpendim Nadzaku, looked on from a distance as television camera crews busied Wright and the other protesters Saturday afternoon. Nadzaku pondered Wright’s words about the guns not being used to intimidate members of the mosque.

Imagine if a family in their own home saw a neighbor walking up and down their sidewalk with guns, Nadzaku said.

“It’s going to cause them to be alarmed,” he said.

The imam didn’t buy the self-defense explanation, either.

“That’s what the police force is for,” Nadzaku said the protesters’ need for protection. “When is it going to become this vigilantism where everybody decides to take the law into their own hands?”

As he spoke, a car passed by the imam and a group of counter-protesters supporting the mosque. The driver honked. A passenger flashed a peace sign. Nadzaku held up two fingers in return.

On the other side of the road, the BAIR protesters had received a few one-finger salutes from driving onlookers, as well as loud, spoken vulgarities.

A member of the mosque, who did not provide his name to The News, had engaged Wright in a debate on his own behalf as news cameras, photographers and reporters huddled around.

“Nobody was listening to me two or three weeks ago — not one person,” Wright said motioning to reporters around him. “Now look, now look, now look how many people are now listening to me.”

Their conversation continued. Wright reiterated his suspicions about the mosque. The mosque member asked to see proof of Wright’s claims. Wright countered by asking for proof the mosque was innocent. They argued over refugee policy and BAIR’s protest tactics.

A few minutes later, cameras started clearing out. So did the armed protesters.

CONDEMNATION IN DALLAS

BAIR’s first protest in Richardson didn’t draw much attention. But the group’s rally weeks later outside the Irving mosque made national news and was met by one of the suburb’s largest spontaneous demonstrations.

As BAIR returned to Richardson today, a coalition of activists, churches and political groups gathered in Dallas to counter their message with the most organized demonstration since the Islam dispute began in North Texas.

Endorsed by national organizations, religious groups and the Dallas County Democratic Party, the “United Against Racism and Hate” rally gathered in Fair Park at 1 p.m. and marched to the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center a few blocks away.

But even before the march began, participants faced some turmoil.

The march was originally advertised as a rally outside Irving’s mosque — a counter-protest to a Ku Klux Klan group that had planned to come today.

“That is the ultimate symbol of hate in the United States,” said Alia Salem, who runs the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national Muslim advocacy group.

But amid a flurry of media attention, the Klan moved its rally into 2016.

“We wanted to continue on,” Salem said. “To have an opportunity to oppose this continuous cycle of hate being hurled at the Muslim community.”

She hoped to expand the movement even further — countering hate rhetoric against minority groups across the United States, and even pivoting into a political movement in the next round of city and state elections.

More than 500 had signed up to attend by early in the week — when Irving mosque officials asked them not to come.

The peace marchers hadn’t asked the mosque if it wanted yet another demonstration during afternoon prayers, said Zia Sheikh, the Islamic Center of Irving’s imam.

“They have the good intention to stick up for us, but there has to be some level of respect,” Sheikh said. “We don’t want our mosque to become a staging ground for rallies.”

“They’re exhausted,” Salem agreed.

After a meeting several days ago with mosque officials, Salem and other rally participants worked out a last-minute shift to Dallas. No one knew how much the changes would hurt attendance.

LOST AT HER OWN RALLY

Five minutes after Saturday’s peace rally was set to start, Tonya Cadenhead and Cody Lynch circled Fair Park, wondering exactly where it was.

They considered this a bad sign, as they had helped organize the event.

“If we don’t know what’s going on then what does that mean for everybody else?” Lynch wondered as Cadenhead stared into a map on her phone.

The two friends had put together last month’s rally to support Irving’s mosque, surprised as everyone else when it drew scores and national press.

But they had nearly pulled out of this week’s followup after a confusion of last-minute venue changes and disagreements with the mosque.

Now, holding peace signs against the wind in south Dallas, they couldn’t find a single demonstrator and worried the sequel had backfired.

After a quarter hour, a man in a pink checkered hat crossed their paths and pointed into the empty distance. “It’s starting,” he said.

Cadenhead and Lynch hurried ahead, groaning when a DART train blocked their path.

But when it passed, they saw another train march out of the park.

Hundreds had come: holding hands and umbrellas and hand-drawn signs. Christians from Irving and Muslims from Plano, marching past blocks of gawkers to huddle beneath a statue of Martin Luther King. Jr. on a carpet of turned leaves.

“The hate isn’t going to stop so we shouldn’t let the rain stop us,” a triumphant Salem yelled into the crowd.

A man in the back beat a wooden spoon against a paper drum as the speakers took their turns. In between a pastor and a rabbi, Cadenhead got to say a few words.

The Starbucks barista turned fledgling social organizer said she had only wanted to comfort the Muslims in Irving after armed men came last month.

Now, to cheers, she spoke of a “snowball of a movement that’s going to take over D-FW.”

HEALING IN IRVING

Left alone by the crowds, Irving mosque leaders have been inviting people from churches and synagogues across Irving to join them Sunday afternoon for a dialogue about faith — no reporters allowed.

“We’re trying to do away with this stereotype of ‘everybody in Irving hates Muslims,’ said City Council member Dennis Webb, who pastors a church and will host the “One Irving” forum with nearly a dozen other faith leaders at the mosque.

“Even in my congregation — a predominantly African-American congregation — a lot of them share the same feeling and fears” about Islam, Webb said. “That they’re all terrorists. Stuff like that.”

Webb blamed Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne for “stirring up the fears” earlier this year, when she spread rumors of a Shariah court on TV, pushed a symbolic City Council vote to enforce the constitution, and later spread false reports that she had stopped Shariah in Irving.

The Shariah court myth has since joined claims that the Quran commands Muslims to murder nonbelievers and countless other rumors treated as fact in anti-Islamic circles.

Left alone by the crowds, Irving mosque leaders have been inviting people from churches and synagogues across Irving to join them Sunday afternoon for a dialogue about faith — no reporters allowed.

“We’re trying to do away with this stereotype of ‘everybody in Irving hates Muslims,’ said City Council member Dennis Webb, who pastors a church and will host the “One Irving” forum with nearly a dozen other faith leaders at the mosque.

“Even in my congregation — a predominantly African-American congregation — a lot of them share the same feeling and fears” about Islam, Webb said. “That they’re all terrorists. Stuff like that.”

Webb blamed Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne for “stirring up the fears” earlier this year, when she spread rumors of a Shariah court on TV, pushed a symbolic City Council vote to enforce the constitution, and later spread false reports that she had stopped Shariah in Irving.

The Shariah court myth has since joined claims that the Quran commands Muslims to murder nonbelievers and countless other rumors treated as fact in anti-Islamic circles.