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Counter-protesters outnumber small group of far-right demonstrators as 2020 contenders speak inside convention

In Houston on Saturday, an annual Islamic convention hosting presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Julian Castro braced for an armed far-right protest and a counter-demonstration.

The 56th Islamic Society of North America (Isna) convention was billed as one of the largest yearly events held by Muslim American advocacy groups. Castro and Sanders were slated to take the stage for one-on-one presidential forums. Organizers estimated around 30,000 would attend the three-day event.

We are really happy [Castro and Sanders] are coming in to address our community, Lubabah Abdullah, an Isna board member, told the Guardian. Weve recently realized the Muslim community has a strong voting bloc, if we do go out and register and actually show up to vote.

In the 2018 midterm elections, Muslim Americans in four key states Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia showed up to the ballot box at a rate of 25% higher than the 2014 midterms, according to a study by the advocacy group Emgage.

After coming to office in January 2017, the Trump administration introduced a travel ban targeting mostly Muslim-majority countries, slashed the number of refugees admitted to the US to an all-time low of 30,000 per year, and drummed up the threat of unknown Middle Easterners attempting to cross the southern border.

John Esposito, director of Georgetown Universitys Bridge Initiative, a project focusing on Islamophobia, said Trumps policies and rhetoric play into an idea of a white nation while demonising Muslims, immigrants, refugees and others.

People are afraid to go to a mosque or a meeting of a major Muslim organization, he said, adding: The most dangerous part is when youve got the president of the United States engaging in this kind of [violent rhetoric].

Abdullah, also executive director of the Council for American Islamic Relations (Cair) Houston chapter, said organizers of the convention had worked closely with local and federal law enforcement.

Police officers patrol past anti-rightwing protesters on Saturday. Photograph: Patrick Strickland

Unfortunately [anti-Muslim sentiment] has become the norm and unfortunately weve seen a dramatic rise in hate crimes and Islamophobia, she said.

In late July, the California-based Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism (CSHE) found hate crimes have swelled by 9% in 30 large US cities.

In addition to 75 hate crimes targeting Muslims during the first half of 2019, Cair recorded at least 759 anti-Muslim bias incidents, a pace expected to reach a 22% increase this year over 2014.

Liza Acevedo, deputy press secretary for Castro, told the Guardian American Muslims play a critical role in shaping our nations culture, economy and political process.

At a time when our president continually scapegoats and vilifies the Islamic faith for political gain, candidates should show up and speak directly to these communities about their plans to support them in the years ahead, she added.

In the weeks leading up to the convention, the far-right, anti-Muslim Texas Patriot Network and local radio host James Doc Greene called for a demonstration against what it claimed was evidence of collusion between leftists and the Muslim Brotherhood, according to a now-defunct Facebook page.

Informing participants that the Texans Against Radical Islam protest was open carry, the page described the Isna convention as a terrorist fundraiser and stated: Texans will stand against this tyranny.

Texas Patriot Network did not reply to requests for comment but rightwing groups have targeted Isna for years, apparently owing to its inclusion as an unindicted co-conspirator in the widely criticized Holy Land Five case in 2007. A US district court judge later ruled the government violated the rights of Isna and other Muslim groups.

In response to Saturdays anti-Muslim rally, civil rights groups, anti-racist organizations and anti-fascist activists announced a counter-protest. The coalition included the Houston Socialist Movement (HSM), the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Familias Inmigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha (Fiel), among others.

The counter-demonstrators hoped to out-shout their counterparts, said David Michael Smith of HSM.

This is nothing but racism and religious bigotry on the part of the fascists, he told the Guardian. Beyond that, we dont think fascists should have a platform so wed like to basically drive them off the streets on Saturday.

A Houston police spokesperson said the department would be there to ensure citizens are able to express and exercise their constitutional rights. We are there to ensure that it is a safe environment, and we staff accordingly to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

In 2018, Greene and the Texas Patriot Network called for a similar protest. Around two dozen far-right demonstrators came out, conclusively outnumbered by anti-racist protesters. Leaked chat logs revealed that rightwingers identified potential targets for assault, among them Smith and other demonstrators, Houston Press reported.

On Saturday, several dozen counter-demonstrators outnumbered about 15 far-right protesters, several of whom carried firearms, from Texas Patriot Network and other rightwing groups. Dozens of officers kept the two sides separated and confined to fenced-in areas. Police also patrolled on horseback.

Counter-demonstrators held placards declaring Stop Islamophobia and Smash Fascism. Anti-Muslim demonstrators held signs that said No Sharia USA and All Women Equal USA.

Greene addressed convention attendees. Welcome to Houston, home to the largest Islamic population in America, he repeated, through a loudspeaker.

He and others led prayers. Many rightwingers wore pro-Trump shirts and hats and waved Make America Great Again signs.

I am very concerned for the souls of these Muslims, Greene told the Guardian, so that they may also enter into the joy of being a Christian. The only policies [Trump] introduced were not anti-Muslim; they were anti-terrorist We love the fact that hes stopping illegal immigration.

Greene claimed Muslim Americans attempt to blend in in US society and hide their real beliefs. He also accused hooligan Castro and crazy Bernie of being part of a communist plot.

Around 10 demonstrators from the Westboro Baptist Church held a separate rally. Known for protesting at the funerals of soldiers and against LGBTQ events, they held signs that read God hates Islam and stomped on flags of Middle Eastern countries.

On the anti-fascist side, a handful were armed with rifles and some wore masks.

No hate, no fear, Muslims are welcome here, they chanted.

Falko Mueller, an activist with Houston United Front Against Fascism, said the demonstration was a show of solidarity.

Im not Muslim, but Im here to stand with people under attack, he said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/aug/31/houston-islamic-society-sanders-castro-far-right