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At Texas Muslim Capitol Day, supporters form human shield around demonstrators

Participants in Tuesday's Texas Muslim Capitol Day were protected by a massive human circle made up of at least 1,000 supporters.

Supporters create a human shield for participants attending Texas Muslim Capitol Day on Jan. 31, 2017.

Participants in Tuesday's Texas Muslim Capitol Day traveled to Austin for a day of education about the state government. But they walked away with a significant lesson in civil demonstrations.

Two years ago, the Muslim participants who visited the Texas Capitol were met with two dozen protesters who repeatedly interrupted their event. But when participants walked up to the south steps of the Capitol on Tuesday morning, they were surrounded by a massive human circle made up of at least 1,000 supporters looking to ensure the event went off without a hitch.

“Civic engagement ... it is not just a privilege. It is God-given privilege, and it’s also a blessing and our duty to participate,” Sarwat Hussain, president of the San Antonio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the crowd gathered for the biennial advocacy day. “Lately, we have seen some demonstrations against us. That is not going to stop us at all.”

With her arms locked with two other members of her church, Cathy Bingaman, an ESL teacher with several Muslim students, said this was the first time she had participated in anything like this. But she wanted to be there to support children like her students.

"I feel with the political situation the way it is now, it's time for all of us to stand up and defend the Constitution," Bingaman said.

The feeling was shared by those who had linked up arms, several rows deep to keep protesters — who were hardly noticeable — from interrupting the event.

Supporters form a human chain around people participating in Texas Muslim Day at the Capitol on January 31, 2017. Protester Rick Ellis of Texas shouts at the crowd as they remain silent.Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Texas Muslim Capitol Day, which began in 2003, brings members of Muslim communities across the state, including many young students, to the Capitol to see for themselves what state government is like. This year, both state and national politics appeared to weigh heavily on the attendees.

Tuesday’s event came after a weekend of demonstrations and outcry against an executive order signed by President Donald Trump that banned the entry of individuals into the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries and temporarily blocked the resettlement of refugees in the country.

Just days before, Muslim leaders had denounced a poll sent by freshman state Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, to mosque leaders and Muslim student associations across the state asking them to fill out a poll about their beliefs. In a statement on the poll, Biedermann said he was seeking responses ahead of a homeland security summit he would hold.

While Biedermann was out of his office when some visitors came by Tuesday, those visitors were received with a statement from the representative, his legislative aides said.

“Our liberties and our borders must both remain secure,” the statement read. “I am against any discrimination based upon religion, race or gender. Civil rights should be protected for citizens of the United States. A secure border is not just beneficial, but necessary for both citizens and immigrants of a thriving republic.”

Outside the Capitol, more than 20 Democratic lawmakers attending the event made their support known. “We are with you ... this is your country, this is your state,” state Rep. Celia Israel of Austin told the crowd. “Texas needs you, and you belong here.”

It was a sentiment made clear by supporters who had joined arms in front of the Capitol. And it was echoed earlier that morning when the first few students who arrived for the advocacy event were met with cheers and applause from the circle of supporters.

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Among the attendees was Fatima Ali, a 12-year-old originally from Iraq, who almost didn’t make it onto the list of students who were allowed to miss school for the advocacy day. Now that she was here, determination was written all over her face.

Wearing her purple school uniform and a white head scarf, Fatima was unwavering about her plans to meet with lawmakers and their staffs. She is one of the few immigrants at her school, she said, so she wanted to make sure they met someone like her.

“It’s important to interact with people to make sure they know who we are,” Fatima said. “I want them to know we are peaceful.”

Traveling with her was Laila Khatar, 35, who teaches Arabic at Renaissance Academy in Austin and was hoping the schoolchildren could speak with various state representatives.

“We are here to show our Muslim identity,” said Khatar. “We are proud of it. At the same time, we are also American citizens and we are part of this community. We want to do what’s best for everyone to make our voices heard.”

As the event wrapped up, Alia Salem of CAIR’s Dallas-Fort Worth chapter told the crowd she was actually thankful for the actions of both Trump and Biedermann because they had helped boost their calls for civic engagement.

“They’re the ones whose actions have inspired you to be here today,” Salem said. “I’m glad to see hate can turn into absolute love.”

Read related coverage:

  • President Donald Trump signed an executive order to indefinitely ban Syrian refugees from entering the country and pause all refugee admissions for 120 days — a move that could keep thousands of refugees from being resettled in Texas.
  • Freshman state Rep. Kyle Biedermann sent a letter to mosque leaders and Muslim student associations in order to poll them about their beliefs ahead of Texas Muslim Capitol Day.
  • President Trump’s executive order restricting travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries and halting refugee admissions left many refugee resettlement agencies wondering what was left of their mission. But they were undeterred.

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Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Texas Legislature