Anti-Muslim Sentiment in Irving (And the Imam Who Has To Tolerate It)

Can't we all just get along?

Imam Zia ul-Haque Sheikh: "we always seem to take one step forward, two steps back." Photo by Justin Clemons
Imam Zia ul-Haque Sheikh: “We always seem to take one step forward, two steps back.” Photo by Justin Clemons

In the paper today, Avi Selk has a lengthy story about some anti-Muslim foolishness going on in Irving. It centers on a religious tribunal that is supposedly going to usurp the U.S. Constitution and ruin America. (I’m exaggerating only a little bit.) Last night, the City Council voted 5-4 to support a bill authored by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) that would forbid such tribunals from using foreign law in their rulings (which is already illegal).

I wrote about all this for the April issue of D Magazine, which won’t mail to subscribers for another three days. So I’m posting the article here. Before I wrote my story, I spent some time with Imam Zia ul-Haque Sheikh, the head of the Islamic Center of Irving and a man who has far more patience and compassion than I do. For your edification:

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The first thing you notice at the Islamic Center of Irving is its large green dome, or qubba. Representing the vault of heaven, it seems to shine in the afternoon sun atop the center’s bright white mosque, or masjid. The 37,000-square-foot center — a complex that includes the mosque, a school, and a multi-use hall, all currently undergoing expansion — offers an impressive picture in this drab corner of northwest Irving.

When you enter the complex through the Islamic School of Irving (adjacent to the mosque) after early afternoon prayer, the tranquility of the center is broken, if only slightly. The hallway floods with men, many still wearing the traditional cap for prayer, the taqiyah. Most are smiling and shaking hands and offering best wishes and praise for Allah. Many reflexively say hello to the non-Muslim stranger standing in the hallway, looking confused, asking for the man who has led the prayer: Imam Zia ul-Haque Sheikh.

Imam Zia directs me to his office, wasting no time with small talk. He is a busy man, leading five prayers a day — Friday’s midday prayer can draw as many as 2,000 members. He is also an author (Addressing the Taboos: Love, Marriage and Sex in Islam and Islam: Silencing the Critics) and a lecturer (he speaks five languages).

“This all happened very quickly,” he says. His smile suggests weary bemusement over a social-media firestorm that recently engulfed Imam Zia and the Islamic Center. “It started with the right-wing website story. Then suddenly the mayor [of Irving, Beth Van Duyne] is posting on her Facebook page. From that, hatred and misinformation filled her site and others. And, of course, she had never even spoken with us.”

The website was Breitbart.com, and the post was titled “Islamic Tribunal Confirmed in Texas.” The headline suggested this was something new, even though the tribunal — a panel of four who mediate or arbitrate disputes — had been a registered nonprofit in Texas since 2012. In fact, the 25 or so cases the tribunal hears a year are the sort of family law (divorce proceedings) or business disputes (whether remodeling work was done right) that secular mediators often hear; this tribunal is merely guided by Islamic religious principles.

The day the post went up, it was debunked by Snopes.com, which found its claims “false,” concluding: “[T]he tribunal neither possessed nor claimed any ability to supersede extant laws in its jurisdiction, either civil or criminal. Parties are not obligated to participate in the mediation it offers, nor does the center have any power to operate outside the law.”

Other faiths have similar religious arbitration or mediation groups, such as the Christian Peacemaker Ministries and the Jewish Beth Din. In Dallas, the Catholic Diocese of Dallas has a tribunal. Few consider this unusual—until Muslims are involved.

This certainly seems to have been Van Duyne’s major concern. On February 6, she took to Facebook to express her concern about the Breitbart story and let the world know “Sharia Law Court was NOT approved or enacted by the City of Irving.” (No one had suggested it was.) She continued for a few paragraphs, concluding: “While I am working to better understand how this ‘court’ will function and whom will be subject to its decisions, please know if it is determined that there are violations of basic rights occurring, I will not stand idle and will fight with every fiber of my being against this action. Our nation cannot be so overly sensitive in defending other cultures that we stop protecting our own. The American Constitution and our guaranteed rights reigns [sic] supreme in our nation and may that ever be the case.”

The post was shared more than 700 times and elicited commentary ranging from confused (“How did this even come about this is are country”) to hostile (“Those who don’t like it here are welcome to leave.and immigrate any country that will accept you”). In an effort to better understand the theological and cultural underpinnings of the tribunal, Van Duyne appeared on The Glenn Beck Program and proclaimed, “This is not city-sanctioned, we weren’t given an opportunity even to pass anything, and we’re not supportive of it. … I think you need to put your foot down and say this is America, we have laws here already.”

A few facts worth noting:

Most important, the tribunal is not affiliated with the Islamic Center. Imam Zia is one of four members who constitute the tribunal. Its official address is in North Dallas, but the tribunal meets about twice a month for hearings wherever they can find a suitable office (usually in Arlington).

Second: despite Van Duyne’s claims, the city of Irving has taken no stance on the center or the tribunal (which, again, isn’t even in Irving). It did issue a statement saying that the city wants residents to obey the law and that Irving “is proud to have one of the most diverse ZIP codes in the United States.”

Third: Van Duyne’s confusion is one of willful ignorance. All of the foregoing information is available online. If you want to know what the tribunal is and what it does, it has a website. If you want to learn about the Islamic Center — about its history (started in an apartment in Irving in 1989, became an official nonprofit in 1991, current complex opened in 2004), or its education services (a recent sensitivity training workshop: “What Our Neighbors Think of Us and Why”), or its members — it’s all online.

Better yet, show up for the weekly open house on Sundays at 2:30 pm for a tour of the Islamic Center. You should do so, if for no other reason than to meet Imam Zia, something of a hero to the Muslim community. He was born in a mountainous region known as Azad Kashmir, between India and Pakistan. When he was 4, his family moved to England. At 13, he began 12 years of study in a theology program at an Islamic institute. By 16, he had memorized the Quran. In 1994 he completed his master’s (a doctorate in theological foundation followed). Two years later, he took a job at a mosque in Virginia, eventually making his way to Irving, in 2005, because of the Islamic Center’s expansion plans.

After 10 years in his post, Imam Zia has become a leader outside the church as well. He is part of a regular gathering of community activists, including black pastors, who work to see caring leaders elected to the City Council and the school board. He holds meetings at the mosque with local officials (fire chief, police chief, city department heads) so he can relay relevant issues and concerns to his congregation. He makes aiding all the poor in Irving a priority for his mosque. In the past year alone, the center has given more than $50,000 to various causes to help the needy.

“Imam Zia has been a constant source of help for those in need in our community,” says Anthony Emanuel Bond, founder of the Irving NAACP. “He and all the Muslim brothers and sisters that I have met and worked with are so loving and giving. They truly desire nothing more than to serve God and live in peace.”

Having been in Irving for a decade, Imam Zia has grown accustomed to the small-town grandstanding. Although careful not to be too critical of Van Duyne directly, he says the ignorance she displayed is something Muslim-Americans must face in today’s climate, whether that be in Irving (where emails with subject lines like “IRVING ISD INDOCTRINATING ISLAM” make news) or elsewhere (the recent “cartoon contest of the Prophet Muhammad” held in Garland).

“Unfortunately, in terms of understanding, we always seem to take one step forward, two steps back,” Imam Zia says. “But we will continue to do our level best to educate people.”

Three weeks after her Facebok post, Van Duyne finally met with Imam Zia. She told him that she said nothing wrong in her post or on The Glenn Beck Program, so no apology on her part was needed. Imam Zia told me he was disappointed but held no ill will toward her. All of which you could have guessed without my telling you.

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