The Struggle Over Islam in Irving, Texas

by | December 4, 2015

By Avi Selk

The man who took a tactical shotgun to an Irving mosque doesn't want his group confused with the self-styled Ku Klux Klan chapter planning to rally in the same city.

"It's not like we're racist, homophobic bigots," said David Wright, spokesman for the well-armed Bureau on American Islamic Relations. "We just have a certain level of distrust for certain Islamic people."

Meanwhile, the leader of the Texas Rebel Knights of the Ku Klux Klan said he wants nothing to do with Wright's guns when his people don hoods in Irving.

"We want a peaceful event. No weapons," said the Rebel Knights' "Imperial Wizard," calling from an anonymous phone line in East Texas.

Pacifist Klansmen and gay-tolerant anti-Islamists are hardly the only groups butting up in this Dallas suburb, which rarely saw public dissent beyond a split City Council vote until Wright's protest made international news last month.

Residents are having trouble keeping up with all the counter-protests and counter-counter-protests that have followed. With RSVPs from bikers, Methodists, peace activists, race separatists and Democratic Party organizers, Irving has been booked into next spring by clashing countercultures.

Residents are having trouble keeping track of which group is protesting in Irving next.

The Facebook forums of Irving, once devoted to issues like lost dogs and untidy lawns, have lately veered into discussions about national politics, nonstop protests and _ in the last few days _ the Ku Klux Klan's plans to come to town.

In fact, Wright said, the Klan has already visited.

He said two members of the Texas Rebel Knights crashed his group's protest outside the Islamic Center of Irving last month, when about a dozen from his group stood with guns to protest the "Islamization of America."

Wright complained that his group's actions have been distorted in news reports, which quickly spread across the country and overseas.

They brought rifles to the mosque for protection, not intimidation, Wright said. And when he posted the names and addresses of local Muslims online after the protest, he was only trying to prove that Muslims had opposed a City Council vote against foreign laws _ prompted by viral, unsupported rumors that a Shariah court in Irving was usurping the Constitution.

The Klan misunderstood his message too, Wright said.

"They stood with us before letting us know who or what they were," he said. Finally, a "big, husky" guy leaned over and confessed, 'Let me tell you, we're the Klan!' "

"What have I got myself into now?" Wright remembered thinking.

Wright said the Klansmen, out-of-towners like himself, wanted his members to join them at the mosque again this month _ an idea he rejected, as his group includes blacks, Hispanics and gays.

The Dallas Morning News called the Texas Rebel Knights' hotline in Quinlan, where the voice mail message advertises a Christmas toy drive. A man identifying himself as the "Imperial Wizard" called back and said his members had come to Irving to scout for their rally, not to join forces with Wright.

"We picked that mosque and wanted to kind of look at the location," he said. "We wasn't going to wear the robes."

In the end, the Rebel Knights decided that the sidewalk in front of the mosque would be too small for their rally in opposition to admitting Syrian refugees' entry to the U.S. So they rescheduled for May 30, near City Hall, and decided to wear robes and hoods after all.

"The rally's going to be so big," the Imperial Wizard said. But, he added, the Klan has come "a long way" from its bloody past, and he doesn't want weapons anywhere close when they come to Irving.

"We do believe that races should stay together. I'm not talking about not mingling, but not sleeping together," he said. "But we're not going to harm anyone for doing it. All we can do is pray."

In the meantime, hundreds are organizing.

Even before news of the Klan rally spread through town, more than 150 people lined up to support the mosque _ one of the biggest street demonstrations some residents could recall seeing in Irving _ a week after Wright's protest.

But events in the city have been intersecting with national angst over Islam all year, starting when the City Council voted against foreign laws, continuing through the mayor's speeches about Shariah courts, and exploding in September after police handcuffed 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed for bringing a homemade digital clock to MacArthur High School.

Another peace rally set for Saturday at City Hall _ between the city's annual chili cook-off and its Christmas tree lighting _ has only attracted a few dozen RSVPs. But even more have signed up to oppose the organizers' message.

"The Muslims are having a rally at Irving City Hall to show how peaceful they are," reads a message on the event's Facebook page. "Just happens to be the same day of the Irving Christmas Parade and Christmas Tree lighting ... We need to be there to show support for City of Irving and Mayor Beth Van Duyne."

So the counter-counter-protestors have started calling up TV stations and biker groups.

Van Duyne, who spent much of the year delivering speeches about the rumored Shariah court that first brought Wright's group to Irving, did not respond to a request for comment on the wave of protests that have followed.

A demonstration set for Dec. 12 is shaping up as the largest and most organized so far. More than 400 have answered the event's call for "all Anti-KKK, Anti-Nazism, Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist and Anti-Hate Activists" to return to the mosque where the protests began.

The Rebel Knights had originally planned to rally at the mosque the same day, before postponing to the spring.

Even so, the counter-protest will go on.

"All this hate that's happening in Irving and D-FW against the Muslim community, it was a catalyst," said Alia Salem, who directs the local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Salem is working with the Dallas County Democratic Party, Methodist groups, an Irving synagogue and many other groups. She hopes not just to put on the city's biggest rally yet, but to turn the energy on Irving's streets into a political force in the next round of elections.

"We want to keep the momentum going and make it bigger," Salem said. "All this stuff that's happening is stemming from the same bucket of hatred." For his part, Wright said he'll be nowhere near Irving that day.

(c)2015 The Dallas Morning News