As some Muslims — and the mosques they worship in — have been subjected to racism, bigotry and hate, a man in Texas has been spreading a positive and powerful message.
Over the past several days, a photo has swept across social media, showing 53-year-old Justin Normand, with a white beard and wearing a cowboy hat, holding a sign outside the Islamic Center of Irving near Dallas.
“You Belong. Stay Strong,” it reads. “Be Blessed. We Are One America.”
Normand, of Dallas, told The Washington Post on Wednesday that he never intended to draw nationwide attention when he first went to the mosque Friday, then for a short time Saturday and Sunday. He said he just wanted to express support for his Muslim neighbors.
But his message struck a nerve when it was posted on Reddit and Twitter, reaching thousands who said it gave them hope.
“It is the message — not me — that is transcendent,” Normand said in a phone interview. “I just spoke what is on a lot of people’s minds.”
The Islamic Center of Irving said that a man had been seen standing outside the mosque over the weekend, sympathizing with the Muslim community during a time of fear over what a Donald Trump presidency will mean for followers of the faith.
Nick Pelletier, director of outreach for the Islamic Center of Irving, spoke with Normand on Saturday outside the mosque.
“We are out here to help one another,” Normand told him, in a video posted on Facebook. “And your community needs help.
“I’m an American and — regardless of who’s here, Americans or immigrants — we’ve got to be here for one another. I’m just here because somebody’s got to speak up and say, ‘You’re valued. You’re okay. You’re part of what’s going on here.’ ”
During the presidential campaign, Trump proposed a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the United States; he later backtracked, calling instead for a suspension on immigration from countries “compromised by terrorism.” But since Trump’s election, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, reported that there have been some 100 anti-Muslim incidents across the country.
Numerous mosques in California and one in Georgia were recently targeted with letters threatening that Trump will do to Muslims what Adolf Hitler “did to the Jews,” according to CAIR.
Irving and its Islamic Center have struggled with their own anti-Islam incidents.
The city, about 15 miles from Dallas, has a small but growing Muslim population of thousands among the city’s 232,000 residents.
As The Washington Post reported in 2015, Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne criticized a Muslim mediation panel rumored to be set up in an Irving mosque to settle civil disputes using Sharia law — which opponents worried would lead to practices and punishments seen in some Muslim countries, as well as clash with the United States’ constitutional rights. Van Duyne began referring to the tribunal as a “court” and warned that foreign law cannot be applied when it “violates public policy, statutory, or federal laws.”
Irving’s mosque “categorically” denied hosting a court, stating that its imam acted as an arbitrator on a tribunal in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.
Then there was Ahmed Mohamed.
The teenage boy, whose family worshiped at the Irving mosque, was arrested when he brought a homemade clock to school — igniting national outrage.
The mosque is also the site where demonstrators gathered late last year, armed with long guns and signs proposing to “Stop the Islamization of America,” the Dallas Morning News’s Avi Selk reported at the time. The anti-Muslim protests followed the Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris that killed at least 130 people and injured hundreds of others in November 2015.
The protest’s organizer, David Wright, also published names and addresses for “every Muslim and Muslim sympathizer that stood up for … Sharia tribunals in Irving,” according to the newspaper.
Earlier this week, Normand identified himself as the mysterious man outside the mosque and explained the motivation behind his message.
“Like most everyone I know, I have been in a malaise and at a loss since Election Day,” Normand wrote on Facebook. “What to do? With myself? With my time? To make things better, or even just to slog through?
“I manage a sign shop, and so I had had the urge for a week or so to do this. Friday, I had a couple of spare hours in the afternoon, so I did. I made a sign, and I drove to the nearest mosque and stood out on the public sidewalk to share the peace with my neighbors. My marginalized, fearful, decent, targeted, Muslim neighbors.”
Justin Normand. (Courtesy of Justin Normand)
Normand, who described himself as a longtime activist, said the response has been visceral — thousands and thousands have shown their support, even as others have spoken out against his actions. But he said he has been deeply humbled by the reaction.
“For me, this wasn’t about expressing agreement; I remain Presbyterian, not Muslim,” he wrote on Facebook. “It wasn’t about demonstrating my outrage to right-wing drivers driving down Esters Road in front of the mosque. I can never, and will never, change any of the haters. It’s not about them. Not this time, and not here.
“This was about binding up the wounded. About showing compassion and empathy for the hurting and fearful among us. Or, in some Christian traditions, this was about washing my brother’s feet. This was about my religion, not theirs. And, it was about what I think I must do as an American when our way of life is threatened. Targeting people for their religion not only threatens our way of life, it is the polar opposite of our way of life.”
Normand’s husband, Gary Cathey, said that after the election the two had been praying for a way to make a positive impact.
“This came from what Justin felt like someone following the teachings of Jesus would do,” Cathey said of Normand’s message. “This came from a very spiritual place. Justin made the sign and God has done the rest.”
As a result, Normand said, he has learned how “downtrodden” some Muslims feel and wants them to see themselves as an “integral part of who we are” in America.
This story, which was originally published Nov. 29, has been updated.
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