Top Democrat politicians are due to attend a conference organised by Muslim-American groups, but far-right activists are also planning to turn up.
Presidential hopefuls Julian Castro and Bernie Sanders are scheduled to attend an annual Islamic conference in Texas over the weekend, while a far-right demonstration against the event is expected to draw an anti-fascist counter-protest.
Hosted by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Emgage Foundation, the conference will include moderated sessions and is slated to take place at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.
Speaking to the Houston Chronicle, the organisers said they expect upwards of 30,000 participants to attend the conference. The event hopes to encourage an increased Muslim American electoral participation as the US nears the 2020 presidential election.
Between 2014 and 2017, Castro, a Democrat from Texas, served as the US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under former president Barack Obama.
Sanders, an independent and current US Senator from Vermont, vied for the Democratic slot in the 2016 presidential election but lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton.
The annual Houston event comes at a time when the country is gripped by rising anti-Muslim sentiment, much of it spearheaded by US President Donald Trump and his Republican Party.
On Facebook, the Texas Patriot Network, a far-right group that supports Trump, has called for a protest against the conference, which it described as a “terrorist fundraiser” supposedly linked to the “Muslim Brotherhood”.
In the Facebook event’s description, Texas Patriot Network informed supporters that “open carry is allowed”, referring to carrying a firearm in public.
Contacted by TRT World, the Houston Police Department’s media relations office said it was unable to comment on the conference and planned protests at the moment, although it noted that groups and individuals have the right to hold “peaceful assemblies”.
Rally and counter-rally
The far-right news site One America News claimed in the lead-up to the conference: “Far-left socialist candidates … have agreed to speak at a convention with blatant ties to radical Islamic terrorists.”
The accusations stem from past allegations that the Islamic Society of North America had links to banned organisations.
In 2007, ISNA and two other Muslim advocacy groups were named as unindicted co-conspirators in the Holy Land Five case.
The controversial trial eventually led to the convictions of five former employees of the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation on charges related to financing terror groups, but a judge later ruled that the government had violated the rights of ISNA and the other groups.
A broad coalition of anti-racist activists, pro-immigrant rights organisations and anti-fascist groups has called for a counter-protest against the Texas Patriot Network and its supporters on Saturday.
David Michael Smith of the Houston Socialist Movement said the counter-protesters hope to “drown out” the far-right rally-goers. “We don’t believe that fascists should have a platform,” he told TRT World.
“Our job is to get out there, outnumber them and outshout them once again,” he added.
The Texas Patriot Network and local radio host Doc Greene staged a similar protest outside the ISNA convention last year, drawing the support of white supremacist groups and armed militia groups.
Counter-protesters, however, outnumbered the far-right rally attendees.
They included the Houston Socialist Movement, the Houston chapter of the Huey P Newton Gun Club, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and other progressive and left-wing groups.
This year’s annual convention, along with the protests, comes on the heels of surging hate crimes, many of them targeting Muslims, immigrants, Jews, people of colour, and members of the LGBTQ community, among others.
Earlier this month, California State University at Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism (CSHE) released a report documenting a nine percent uptick in hate crimes across 30 American cities last year.
The report noted that Houston saw at least 32 hate crimes last year—a number marking the highest in a decade—and added there were at least 12 hate crimes in the city during the first six months of this year.
Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims
The rise of Trump ushered in a resurgence of anti-Muslim rhetoric and bias incidents around the country.
In addition to ratcheting up anti-immigrant sentiment, Trump campaigned on creating a surveillance database of Muslim Americans and barring Muslims from entering the country.
Since coming to office, Trump has implemented a ban on travellers from several Muslim-majority countries and slashed the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the US, including those fleeing war-ravaged countries in the Middle East.
Over the weekend, Trump faced criticism for sharing a Twitter post by Katie Hopkins, a United Kingdom-based far-right and anti-Muslim media personality.
Hopkins has described refugees as “cockroaches” and called for a “final solution” after a deadly terror attack in Manchester in 2017.
The Trump administration has also appointed several prominent anti-Muslim figures to key roles.
Those appointees include National Security Advisor John Bolton, who presided over the anti-Muslim Gatestone Institute, and Deputy National Security Advisor John M Kupperman, who served on the board of the far-right, anti-Muslim Center for Security Policy between 2001 and 2010.
Last year, as the country geared up for the midterm vote, Trump claimed that “unknown” Middle Eastern “terrorists” were travelling in a US-bound caravan of mostly Latin American migrants and refugees. His team later admitted that there was “no proof” behind the claim.
In a report during the midterm election campaign period, the Washington, DC-based Muslim Advocates group documented at least 80 instances of “clear anti-Muslim rhetoric” by political candidates in 2017 and 2018.
As the duelling rallies prepare to assemble in Houston on Sunday, David Michael Smith of the Houston Socialist Movement insisted: “Nobody should be harassed because of the type of faith or the creed that they have.”