Buses from across the state carried several hundred Texas Muslims, many of them first-time visitors, to the state Capitol Thursday. They were met by a small but boisterous group of protesters -- and harsh words from at least one legislator.
Before sunrise Thursday, a few dozen Muslims, including students from a parochial school called Radiant Stem Academy, readied for prayers at the Islamic Center of Irving.
“Did you pray yet?” one fifth grader says.
After a few minutes, a young boy takes charge, and prayers begin. Later, on the bus to Austin, the kids relax.
“There’s even a bathroom on the back!” says another student. In front of the bus is Saif Islam. He’s excited about his first trip to the Capitol.
“I’m passionate about my right as a citizen of the United States, as a Muslim, to know what I should be doing, so I can contribute in a positive way,” Islam says.
He and busloads of Muslims from at least five other cities participated in what’s called Texas Muslim Capitol Day, a regular event sponsored by the local chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The idea is to show young people and adults how to participate in democracy.
Protesters gather with signs
Previous events have been relatively uneventful. That wasn't the case Thursday.
As the visitors arrived to the south steps of the Capitol, they saw a few dozen protesters carrying signs that said "Save America" and "Go Home, Take Obama With You."
Some shouted "Jesus" and "No Sharia." They tried to drown out speeches by the Muslim constituents.
Rick Ellis is a native of Fort Worth, and now lives just east of Waco. His sign read "Jesus Christ is Lord."
“Sharia law violates the rights of persons,” he says. “We do not violate the rights of another person. They violate all over the world ... whenever they deal with that … clean the trash out of their own mosques, then they can come lecture me as an American.”
One Muslim says: 'Just brush them off'
Sheik Islam Mossaad is with the North Austin Muslim Community Center.
“We are here for a safe Texas, we are here for a healthy Texas,” he says. “We are here for a prosperous Texas. And as for haters, haters are as in the words of the teenagers. They’re just like dust, just brush them off.”
While protesters continued to shout “Jesus” and “ISIS will gladly take you,” speakers tried to stay focused on the day’s goals. Dominic Calhoun is a staffer for state Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Democrat from Houston.
“To the students that are here, we encourage you to take part of the democratic process,” he says. “And once again, we welcome you to the House.”
Another welcome came from state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican from Plano. He tweeted: “All Texans are welcome at YOUR Capitol – and all Texans are always welcome in my office. Come one. Come all. #txlege.”
State rep asks protesters to pledge allegiance
That wasn’t the case with freshman state representative Molly White, a Republican from Belton, south of Waco. She left an Israeli flag at her front desk in the Capitol, and instructed her staff to ask Muslim visitors to renounce Islamic terrorists groups, and pledge their allegiance to the United States. On Facebook, she wrote: “We’ll see how long they stay in my office.”
These words didn’t discourage Alia Salem, the executive director of the North Texas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Affairs. Speaking to the crowd of mostly young students, she says: “You have to get involved, you have to participate or this country will never represent you.”
She says she didn’t prepare a speech, and just wanted to speak from her heart.
“I want everybody here today to be proud,” she says. “We are an amazing community. And there should be nothing in this world that stops you from living up to those ideals that we pledge to in our faith and in our country.”
For more pictures from Thursday's event, see a slideshow here.
Video of protester at Texas Muslim Capitol Day
The Texas Tribune posted this video of a protester.