This weekend, a religious media company is hosting a huge event in a taxpayer-funded building. Sounds like another day in the life of Texas, but it's not because, in this case, the religious conference is a Muslim one. Just a week after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the Chicago-based Muslim organization SoundVision is leasing space from Garland ISD to host "Stand with the Prophet Against Terror & Hate," a conference whose stated mission is to combat Islamophobia:
The fight in defense of our Prophet against the $160 million Islamophobia machine is continuous, and groups like ISIS and Boko Haram only increase the media's ammunition to incriminate Muslims.
The backlash has been swift. The Garland Tea Party is speaking out against the event to local news and conservative blogs, and the so-called American Badass Coalition, a Facebook page run by a motorcyclist named John Harrington, is organizing a protest motorcycle ride "to STOP Islamofascists," or so they say.
Harrington, who says he is Christian, has some predictably offensive things to say about religion, mainly that violence is only a problem in Islam and not other religions. "I don't believe that everyone that says they're a Muslim is a bad person," he added in a moment of diplomacy, though he thinks that the teachings in the Koran are inherently violent and not so in Christianity or Judaism.
On the Facebook page for the motorcycle protest, a few people discuss bringing guns and ask whether they're allowed to concealed carry on school property. Another protester apparently plans to bring a pig.
"I think that's kind of hypocritical on their part, they think we're a religion of violence" yet are discussing bringing guns, says Larry Anthony, a Muslim who plans to attend Saturday's conference.
Fueling some of the anti-Islam hysteria has been one speaker in particular: Imam Siraj Wahhaj. Looking at his well-documented history, it is difficult to understand why SoundVision thought inviting him out to Garland would be a wise idea.
No media has been on Wahhaj's case more than the conservative blogosphere, but for a much more nuanced take, here's a 2003 profile of Wihhaj in the Wall Street Journal, where reporter Paul Barrett documents Wahhaj's improbable rise to star preacher despite giving sermons advocating a puritanical interpretation of the religion and hostility to the U.S. government. "In time, this so-called democracy will crumble, and there will be nothing. And the only thing that will remain will be Islam," he had said in one such sermon. Of thieves and adulterers, he has said: "If Allah says 100 strikes, 100 strikes it is. If Allah says cut off their hand, you cut off their hand. If Allah says stone them to death, through the Prophet Muhammad, then you stone them to death, because it's the obedience of Allah and his messenger -- nothing personal."
Barrett eventually wrote a book about American Islam with a chapter devoted to Wihhaj. The book's "Look Inside" feature on Amazon wasn't working (so we couldn't read it, obviously), but Barrett was kind enough to summarize the chapter's main points to us -- that since 9/11, Wahhaj has stopped giving those kinds of speeches. "It's important to note, as I do in the book, that after 9/11 and particularly in more recent years, he has quite explicitly moderated his tone," Barrett says.
Also fueling the protest fire is a letter from federal prosecutors in 1995 that lists Wahhaj among one of a few hundred "un-indicted persons who may be alleged as co-conspirators" during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, though he was never charged. In 1993, two members of his Brooklyn mosque reportedly pleaded guilty to charges of trying to kill a U.S. senator, the Egyptian president and the secretary-general of the United Nations. Again, he was never charged in connection with that.
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Wahhaj hasn't returned an email or a voicemail left for him at his mosque, but he defended his loyalty to the West long ago, insisting to Newsweek in 2002 that he "is not anti-West...I am the West."
"Imam Siraj Wahhaj is a very respected member of the Muslim community, he's never been charged with any crime," says Imam Zia Sheikh, a local leader.
Anthony, the local who plans to attend, says he converted to Islam after 9/11 and hasn't heard Wahhaj's earlier, extreme sermons. He agrees that Wahhaj is respected in the community. "We talk outside our mouth sometimes, and sometimes we run on emotion," he reasons. "He knows best as to why he said what he said."
Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein.