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Amid Death Threats and Attacks on Muslims, Garland Remains Divided in Wake of 'Draw Muhammad' Shootings

Events since Sunday's failed attack speak to broader tensions in Garland, Texas, where two would-be attackers were killed by police.
May 5, 2015, 8:27pm
Photo by LM Otero/AP

The strip malls, schools, and pruned subdivisions of Garland, Texas seem placid and commonplace like any other day, but the Dallas suburb is quietly reeling this week in the aftermath of one of the most stunning events in the town's history.

On Sunday, two men who'd traveled from Arizona were shot dead as they attempted to ambush a "Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest" being held at a the local Curtis Culwell Center. Today, the Islamic State claimed it was behind Sunday's failed attack, though no further evidence has been offered for the claim or the group's affiliation with Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, the failed attackers.

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Since Sunday's failed attack, the Dallas-area Muslim community has been taut with fear. Local Muslim leader Alia Salem, who held a press conference in the neighboring town of Richardson Monday to condemn Sunday's failed attack, told VICE News she received a death threat over the phone on Tuesday morning.

Salem, who is executive director of the Dallas-based Council of American Islamic Relations, said that the male caller told her that "we use the Curtis Culwell Center for cheerleading competitions," and what has happened has "put a stain on it." The caller then asked her if it says in the Quran that Salem should "lop off my head because I'm a Christian?"

Salem said that when she tried to explain that she was not affiliated with the shooters, the caller said: "If I see you or any of you dirty motherfuckers, or if you show up at my house, I'm going to take you out like they took those bastards out on Sunday. That's how we deal with your kind in Texas."

On Monday night, a Muslim man was attacked outside a Richardson mosque as he left prayer services, local police told VICE News. The victim was attacked by another man waiting outside the mosque, who hit and kicked him and then fled the scene. The victim was aided by others exiting the prayer service, and was not severely injured. The attack is still under investigation, according to Sargent Kevin Perlich.

Such threats and individual anti-Muslim assaults in the wake of Sunday's failed assault on the Curtis Culwell Center speak to broader tensions in Garland, whose residents remain divided over whether Sunday's Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest — which offered $10,000 to the best depiction of the Prophet —should have been staged at all. The New York-based American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) — which has antagonized Muslims so vocally that it's been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — held the contest in reaction to a Muslim peace conference at the same center in January.

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While some Garland residents agree with the AFDI that its event is an example of free speech, others claim the cartoons are a provocation to incite violence. Local Muslims felt acutely offended by the contest, but chose not to protest, to avoid being confrontational and giving the AFDI extra attention.

"We've been sitting at the end of prayer each day and praying for peace," Yasmine Gharbieh, an eighth grader at Garland's Muslim school Brighter Horizons Academy, told VICE News. "Yes, we do feel scared to go out here with our headscarves, but our faith is stronger. We wear our scarf by choice, to represent the religion of peace."

While the Muslim school addressed the shooting, most teachers at Naaman Forest Academy — the high school that owns the Curtis Culwell Center, where the convention was held — only mentioned the attack in passing on Monday, students and parents said.

"Today in first period, kids were saying the Muslim student planted bombs… they were saying it was his fault," Naaman Forest 11th grader Tina said outside the school Monday afternoon. "The teacher went along with it. Everybody was laughing."

Tina and her classmate giggled in the parking lot as they reminisced about the jokes, but they insisted there is no discrimination at their school.

"I didn't agree with the event, but I wasn't about to tell my students that."

Most faculty inside the high school — a sweeping brick building with dozens of flags of different nations lining the airy entrance —said they couldn't comment on Sunday's incident, but one teacher who requested anonymity told VICE News he didn't feel it was appropriate to broach the subject with his students.

"I didn't agree with the event," he said of the cartoon contest, "but I wasn't about to tell my students that."

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Other impassioned Garland residents argued that AFDI had every right to hold a free speech event — and claimed the January conference held by Muslim had been just as incendiary.

"It put people on high alert… because it was a bunch of Muslims," one longtime Garlander, who requested to remain anonymous, told VICE News over his beer in the Buffalo Wild Wings by the center.

The Garland Independent School District rented the space to AFDI — in line with its "non-discriminatory" policy — but officials are now reviewing these guidelines, according to local media. The center is used for graduations, standardized testing, and a wide array of special events. The district's spokesman did not return repeated requests for comment from VICE News.

While the staging of the "Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest" remains divisive, Garland's residents are uniting in praise of their local police force, which quickly took down the two gunmen. Even one innocent bystander named Miguel, who was apprehended by police during the incident, told VICE News he agrees with the officers' approach.

"The place looked like the president was here. The cops had watchtowers everywhere, with cops standing on top holding guns," he told VICE News.

Miguel said that had driven to the center to watch and take photos of any potential protests, but when he saw no one was demonstrating, he started driving away — and then heard a string of gunshots. He pulled over his car, and once the scene was quiet, he stepped outside to take photographs, but was soon handcuffed and taken to the precinct for questioning. He was released hours later. Miguel was the only man arrested in the wake of the failed attacks, police officer Joe Harn told VICE News.

Harn, who's been an officer here the past 35 years, told VICE News that most disputes in Garland are domestic, and are between neighbors or friends.

"I don't remember ever having anything like this in Garland," he said.

Related: Islamic State Claims Responsibility for Texas Attack on 'Draw Muhammad' Event

 Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @MerHoffman