In a show of solidarity with the Muslim community, dozens of non-Muslims showed up Friday afternoon outside the Islamic Society of Greater Houston mosque, bearing signs that read, "We're glad you're here" and "We are all Americans."
The demonstrators greeted Muslims as they entered the mosque for Friday afternoon prayers, then shook hands and hugged them as they left, while one demonstrator's young daughter handed out flowers. Many of the attendees told the Houston Press they had decided to come to show love and support amid national apprehensive rhetoric directed at Muslims, rooted in fear of difference and spread by politicians including the president-elect, Donald Trump.
"There's been a climate of fearmongering and hateful rhetoric in the past couple years in America, and we have to ask ourselves what's going on to create this climate of fear and hatred," said Stephanie Koithan, who organized the demonstration. "When your president-elect mentions a Muslim registry, whether it happens or not, the words were said, and that tells an entire community of people that they are not welcome. We have to create the America that we want — that's kind of what made me start this event."
Koithan is not an organizer on behalf of any group, but is simply a regular citizen who felt like there was something she could do as she kept reading news stories about hate crimes against Muslims across the United States. As Koithan pointed out Friday, the FBI has recently reported a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims, with 257 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2015, up from 154 in 2014.
Muslims at the Islamic Society of Greater Houston on Friday said the display of support from non-Muslims was encouraging to see. They invited the supporters into the mosque for some sweets and snacks afterward, then gathered everyone in the prayer room to thank them and answer any questions about the religion they had.
"When Stephanie approached us with her idea of wanting to bring some people together to support us as a Muslim community, we were so happily surprised," said Vaseem Ansari, a community outreach volunteer at the Islamic Society of Greater Houston. "I didn't think I'd get emotional, but just seeing everybody out here taking time out of their day and their lives, it's just very sweet."
Turning to Koithan, Ansari told her, "From an advocacy perspective, it's one thing to advocate for yourself, but it's another thing when someone has no interest in it advocates for you — for the reason of justice for all. You're not Muslim, you're not a visible minority, but still, you're all here to stand up for everybody's rights. I think that is so key."
Many demonstrators told the Press that they knew Muslims personally, and that their stories — or concerns — compelled them to show up. One woman said her daughter's 15-year-old friend had posted a Facebook status voicing serious fears about what the new president might do to her and thousands like her. Another woman said her neighbors had come to the United States from Baghdad after an American missile struck their neighbor's home and killed a loved one. Still, the woman said, her Muslim neighbors said they would not be afraid and would do whatever Trump required of them, because this was their country, too.
"Muslim leaders have been encouraging us to keep being a part of the community and being nice to everyone, and not to be too afraid," said Afshan Mohammed, who came to pray at the mosque and help with a bake sale that day. "Because if we are afraid of non-Muslims, and they are afraid of us, then it just becomes a big wall in between. We have to see each other as human beings."