Above: Students from Houston Quran Academy sing the national anthem during Texas Muslim Capitol Day.
While a couple dozen protesters at the Capitol today held signs decrying Islam and called for Muslims to “go home,” Najmus Saqib Hassan watched on placidly. “Wherever Muslims get together, there is this,” he said. “But they have a right to be here. It doesn’t bother me.”
Hassan joined several hundred other Texans at the Capitol today for “Texas Muslim Day.”
Over the course of the 140-day legislative session there are hundreds of lobby days—for towns, industries, farmers, veterans, universities and all sorts of other interest groups. But few attract the vitriol that Texas Muslim Capitol Day did today.
Hundreds of Muslims from all over the state attended the event, which started in 2003. Many were schoolchildren who crowded in close to the podium as CAIR-Texas Communications Director Ruth Nasrullah began to speak. Before she could barely get a word out, a protester pushed her aside and grabbed the microphone.
“I proclaim the name of the Lord Jesus Christ over the Capitol of Texas. I stand against Islam and the false prophet of Mohammed,” Christine Weick yelled, before she was taken away by security.
On the “Taking a Stand Against CAIR” Facebook event page, 212 protesters said they planned on attending, but barely two dozen showed up today. Those who did were loud and relentless, shouting throughout the press conference, even when a group of teenage girls from Houston’s Quran Academy sang the national anthem.
Security was visibly high at the event, and police kept the protesters at bay.
Representatives from Texas Impact, an interfaith-advocacy organization based in Austin and co-sponsors of the event, had requested extra security because of a bomb threat posted on Facebook on Jan. 20.
Participants, for the most part, took the protesters in stride. Alia Salam, executive director of CAIR-Dallas Forth Worth, told the crowd: “When you see that out there, that’s America. That’s a good thing.”
“We may not like it, but one day you are going to protest against something you don’t like and it is important that you are able to do so,” she said. “Don’t let anything make you afraid to be involved.”
The purpose of the day wasn’t to push a particularly Islamic agenda on the Legislature, but to encourage members of the Muslim community to become more involved in the democratic process. Despite the angry protests, attendees were eager to make the rounds at the Capitol and talk about an agenda that was calibrated to have broad appeal. Event organizers encouraged the crowd to tell their lawmakers that they support the Texas DREAM Act, which offers in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who graduate high school in Texas, and legislation that would require law enforcement to wear body cameras.
“When you’re a part of society, you should support things that are good for everyone,” CAIR-Houston Executive Director Mustafaa Carroll told the Observer. “Muslims aren’t just here to see what benefits them, but what benefits everybody.”
Participants did single out one bill for protest: House Bill 670 by Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton), an anti-Sharia bill that pertains to the application of “foreign laws” in U.S. courts.
Several states have already passed similar bills, based on model legislation known as “American Laws for American Courts,” which was originally drafted by anti-Sharia activist David Yerushalmi.
In April 2014, Flynn claimed in an email to his constituents that the British Parliament would now be allowing religious Islamic law “a place in their legal system” and approving “Muslim religious precepts” that discriminate against women and children.
“There is no question the Judeo-Christian heritage we covet and aim to protect is under attack,” Flynn said in the email. “We the American people must wake up and recognize the Spiritual Warfare raging in America.”
Carroll says the the likelihood of Sharia law ever having any influence over American courts is “slim to none” and that the bill makes it looks as if Muslims “have some nefarious plot” to take over the judicial system.
The day also featured an uproar over a Facebook post from state Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) that called on Muslims visiting her office to pledge allegiance to the U.S.
Ideas about plotting Muslims and other misconceptions of those who practice Islam are bred by ignorance, Hassan said. Prejudices could be reduced, he says, if people simply made the effort to talk to Muslims. He suggested that folks visit mosques and Islamic centers, and extended an invitation for anyone interested to visit the place where he worships: the Maryam Islamic Center in Sugar Land, a facility that can accommodate 1,300 people (there are over 50,000 Muslims in Houston).
“If you live in a tunnel, you will be seen in a tunnel,” he said.