Update 9 p.m.: IRVING — The forecasts began warning of rain almost as soon as Tonya Candenhead sent out the first invitations for Saturday’s rally in support of Irving’s mosque — planned after protesters took guns to the site last weekend.
Cadenhead wanted to show the world another side to her hometown, which had been making national news all year for acts of hostility and suspicion toward its small Muslim population.
Between the weather report and the political climate, the 31-year-old Starbucks barista imagined that she and a few friends would end up shivering in ponchos beside Esters Road.
But the storm fell short, and the response from Cadenhead’s neighbors exceeded her hopes.
About 200 people lined up outside the Islamic Center of Irving on Saturday afternoon. Cold but mostly dry, they stood for hours with signs of friendship and support for religious freedom, and they hugged worshippers who drifted over from the mosque.
A dozen men and women with long guns stood in the same spot a week earlier, convinced that the Quran preached violence and declaring that Islam must not be allowed to spread.
“It turned my stomach,” said Bob Maryan, one of many in Saturday’s crowd who had never been to a demonstration. He usually spends his days in downtown Dallas, working in corporate business development.
Behind him, a girl in a pink headscarf wandered through the crowd, mouth agape as people thrust flowers toward her.
“Holding guns where little kids study … it’s just being a coward,” said Maleeha Aziz, 22, who emigrated from Pakistan to Dallas about four years ago. Her sign read: “Terrorism, NOT in my name.”
A man from Syria stood a few feet away in the parking lot, smiling at the spectacle.
“I can’t speak English good,” he said, laughing. “I am new in America.” He was about to say more before a mosque official shooed the reporter away.
The Islamic Center sent out a news release welcoming Saturday’s demonstration, but its leaders were still on edge and had asked members not to talk to the media.
Tensions in Irving began to rise in January when rumor spread online that the mosque harbored an illegal Shariah court. The rumor was false, but it gained popularity after Mayor Beth Van Duyne made it part of a regional speaking tour.
Then in September, police took a 14-year-old Muslim into custody after he brought a homemade clock to MacArthur High. Authorities’ treatment of #Ahmed Mohamed turned Irving into an international symbol of Islamophobia for many.
Fear of Syrian #refugees in the wake of the Paris terror attacks helped draw an anti-Muslim group, the Bureau of American Islamic Relations, to the mosque last week. And the Shariah court rumors prompted the group days later to distribute a list of Irving Muslims’ home addresses online.
BAIR stayed away from Saturday’s demonstration. Group spokesman David Wright said he didn’t consider the turnout impressive.
“Its easy to gather sheep, ask any Shepard!” he wrote on Twitter.
For Cadenhead, Saturday’s gathering seemed a natural response to the protest a week earlier.
“I saw a group of people were being mean, and my instant reaction was to be nice,” she said.
Aided by local and national news stories about Irving’s religious tensions, word of the rally spread virally until the RSVP listed included people from as far away as Austin.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Sheila Reynolds said after her husband set up her wheelchair on the median. Her family drove 45 minutes from Alvarado into what they had expected to be near-freezing rain.
Not that they didn’t have refuge. Throughout the four-hour demonstration, mosque members invited demonstrators to warm up with platters of cookies and chicken shawarma inside.
They were greeted in the hall with words of thanks, and many stayed to mingle with their hosts until it was time for afternoon prayers.
Last week, when Irving’s Muslims looked east and knelt, armed men stood between them and Mecca.
This time, dozens of new friends faced east too.
Update 5:30 p.m.: The rally ended with no storms and no appearance by the armed group that protested the mosque last weekend. Though the leader of that anti-Muslim demonstration did tweet out a jab at today’s much larger event:
Original report: Exactly one week after a dozen armed protesters stood outside the Islamic Center of Irving to stop “the Islamization of America,” more than 200 lined the same sidewalk to support the mosque.
“It turned my stomach,” said Bob Maryan, who works in corporate business development in downtown Dallas, and had never attended a demonstration before.
As he watched the crowd swell along Esters Road, City Council member David Palmer couldn’t recall another demonstration of this size since he’d lived in the city.
But then, it’s been an unusual year for Irving, which has regularly found itself making national news for tensions with its small Muslim population.
First, a false rumor that the mosque was harboring a Shariah court intersected with City Council meetings and Mayor Beth Van Duyne’s public speeches. Then police arrested a 14-year-old Muslim boy who brought a homemade clock to school. Last week’s armed mosque protestors made news again a few days ago when they distributed a list of local Muslims’ home addresses.
Tonya Cadenhead, a Starbucks barista who grew up in Irving, organized today’s demonstration to show the country her hometown’s other side. She never expected the event to become so popular.
People from as far away as Austin signed up to attend the protest, which drew support from across the country and overseas. “It seemed like the right thing to do,” said Sheila Reynolds, who loaded her wheelchair into the car in Alvarado and made a 45-minute drive with her husband and daughter. She hadn’t been to a protest in 30 or 40 years, she said.
“Salaam Alaykum. Peace be with you,” read her sign.
In a cowboy hat and denim, Chuck Smith’s sign was simply a photo from last week’s demonstration: a masked man with a long gun following a Muslim woman down the street. “Brave? Really?” Smith had printed on the picture.
“Holding guns where little kids study … it’s just being a coward,” said Maleeha Aziz, 22, who immigrated from Pakistan nearly four years ago and was swallowed up by Saturday’s throng.
Cars honked nearly constantly as the crowd—from as far away as Austin and as close as down the street—stood for hours in the cold. Most had come expecting a freezing downpour though the rain had yet to come by the time Muslim worshippers began arriving for afternoon worship.
Inside, mosque officials had set up cookies, coffee and chicken Shawarma for their visitors, whom they invited to watch the prayer.
Last week, when the worshippers knelt, armed men stood outside between them and Mecca. This time, hundreds of well-wishers faced the same direction.