An Islamic fundraising conference held to build a center dedicated to teaching Muslims how to combat negative depictions of their faith drew controversy, anger, and crowds of protesters Saturday at the school district-owned Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas.
“We are kind, peaceful people,” a Muslim woman at the conference said. “We’re not here to fight; we’re not here to argue. We’re just here to show that we’re Americans, too.”
Some who picketed the event said Islamic beliefs pose a threat to the American way of life. Counter-protesters also attended, urging understanding and cooperation, as reported by CBS affiliate station, CBS11. The $20-a-ticket Stand with the Prophet in Honor and Respect conference was promoted by Sound Vision Foundation, as reported by the Dallas Morning News and InfoWars. The organization said hate groups use the actions of international extremists, such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram, to turn public opinion against all Muslims.
Imam Siraj Wahhaj, the leader of the Muslim Alliance in North America, was the keynote speaker for the event. Critics say he has extremist views, and that he advocates the overthrow of the United States and the imposition of Sharia law.
Abdul Malik Mujahid, the president of Sound Vision Foundation, said hundreds of hateful messages had been posted online about the conference. He said threats of violence had been shared with law enforcement personnel.
“It is extremely important for the Muslim community to connect with our message. We cannot allow terrorists to run away with the merciful personality of Prophet Muhammad, that they are standing on his name. No. We Muslims in the world, 1.7 billion people, we don’t agree with that… At the same time, we’re wondering whether there are good neighbors in America who will stand up with people of other faiths for their right to practice their faith.”
One of the speakers at the conference, Georgetown University religion professor John Espositio, said the event was part of a series nationwide to discuss terrorism, hate speech, and anti-Islam fears.
“I go to Muslim countries, and I speak all over the United States. What’s interesting to me is that this is the first time that I’ve been in a situation that I’m come to speak and I’ve seen this level of hate.”
The Garland Independent School District faced criticism for renting the center to the group and allowing the conference to be held there, which came a little more than a week after Islamic militants killed 12 people at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as reported by the Inquisitr. Former Garland City Attorney Charles Hinton was among those criticizing the school district for booking the conference.
But school board President Rick Lambert said that because the convention center is a public facility, the district cannot discriminate based on viewpoints. During the convention, protesters and counter protesters were kept in line by increased security by the Garland police department.