FARMERSVILLE, Texas — Khalil Abdur-Rashid kept his calm as meeting attendees hollered at him during his speech in a high school auditorium in the tiny northern Texas city of Farmersville. As he tried to explain why his organization, the Islamic Association of Collin County (IACC), wants to develop a 35-acre cemetery in Farmersville one man yelled, “You’re not welcome here!”
Local residents have protested the proposed cemetery since it was approved by the city on May 28 as a concept plan, prompting city officials and the IACC to host a City Council meeting to address locals’ concerns. On Aug. 4 a mostly white, older audience packed into the school auditorium, where a man led a Christian prayer before the meeting started. Farmersville is home to about 3,300 people, more than 80 percent white and nearly entirely Christian, according to city officials.
Abdur-Rashid, a resident scholar at the IACC, said, “Some folks have unfortunately been party to [groups] spreading hate towards Islam and Muslims. It’s based upon ignorance.”
Although the IACC said it doesn’t know of any Muslims living in Farmersville, the group purchased the land because of its scenic location on the shores of Lake Lavon and its affordability compared with real estate in the more densely populated parts of Collin County closer to Dallas. The families who will bury their loved ones there are part of the estimated 22,000-person Muslim community living mostly in the nearby cities of Plano, Richardson and Garland.
At the public meeting, some angry attendees screamed and interrupted Abdur-Rashid as he tried to speak. Near the end, the one who shouted, “You’re not welcome here!” continued. “Every place y’all have been, you’ve caused some kind of controversy in the schools, and the government lets y’all have y’all’s way. Well, it’s not going to happen in Farmersville.”
Much of the opposition is based on incorrect information and rumors. At the meeting and in national media, some residents argued that Islamic burial practices contaminate groundwater because Muslims do not put the dead in coffins — a claim that Abdur-Rashid dismissed as inaccurate, saying that bodies would be buried in caskets or coffins.
One of the most vocal opponents of the cemetery is David Meeks, the 65-year-old pastor of the local Bethlehem Church, which describes itself on its website as “a conservative Southern Baptist Church that believes in the inerrancy of the word of God.” He has told reporters that the plan is an attempt by Muslim groups to build “a mosque or madrassa training center” in the town.
He declined to comment for this article. At the Aug. 4 meeting, he said, “I promise you that one day we will regret allowing this to take place.”
“When you have local clergy members telling people that Muslims are a danger, they take it as true,” Abdur-Rashid said. “We hope to engage the pastor, the church and local residents in order to build bridges.”
Other locals have reportedly accused the IACC of trying to build a training base for Islamic militants, and some have threatened to cover the land in pig blood to deter the group from moving forward, apparently alluding to the prohibition on consuming pork for practicing Muslims.
Alia Salem, the executive director of the Dallas–Fort Worth branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said that much of the fear reflects a “growing pattern of Islamophobia” in Texas and the rest of the United States. Although Muslims make up only about half a million of the state’s nearly 27 million residents, some area politicians have played a role in fanning fears around the minority.
In some Texas cities, such as Plano and Irving, lawmakers have tried to pass bills prohibiting the implementation of Sharia, or Islamic law. Critics say these bills are unnecessary, since no such plans exist, government adoption of religious law is unconstitutional and such bills contribute to hostility toward Muslims.
According to CAIR, 36 total bills or amendments — all sponsored by Republicans — that “vilify Islamic religious practices” were introduced in 16 states in 2013; six of those were in Texas.
Earlier this year, when many people traveled to Austin for Muslim Capitol Day — an annual event in which Muslims in the state visit their elected officials — Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives Molly White wrote a Facebook post in which she demanded that they “renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our law.”
“When you have politicians who incite [against Muslims] very openly, brazenly and unapologetically, it signals to their voting base that it is OK to attack individuals based on their faith,” Salem said told Al Jazeera.
In Garland, some 20 miles south of Farmersville, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant reportedly claimed responsibility for a failed attack in May on a competition there hosted by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a far-right group, to draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Two gunmen were killed by police in the attack.
In January thousands of anti-Islam protesters assembled outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, where a Muslim organization was holding a conference in support of free speech and against extremism. Waving American and Israeli flags outside, the demonstrators taunted the conference’s attendees.
The Quba Islamic Institute in Houston was burned down on Feb. 12. Authorities are investigating the incident as arson.
But Farmersville has no legal grounds to halt or cancel the cemetery plan, as long as the IACC heeds all the relevant regulations, according to City Manager Ben White. “There is a lot of concern and pushback, but the law is pretty clear. The city cannot apply the law selectively for different religious groups,” he said.
He said he believes that the anger stems from misinformation and local residents’ “natural fears,” which have prompted threats to people on the town’s planning and zoning commission. “In one instance, there was a physical threat to a person and their family, and there was another economic threat [against the city],” he said, adding that the threats are under investigation by local police.
The city has published on its website an information packet to address some of the rumors about the cemetery. Among other things, the document clarifies that there is “no training center” or mosque “planned for this site” and that “there is no terrorist activity associated with this site.”
Charlie Peters, 53, a paint salesman and longtime resident, said he is conflicted about the cemetery. “As a Christian man, I don’t think we should oppose [the cemetery] just because they don’t believe what we do,” he explained. “But at the same time, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me at all … because of everything that’s going on in the world with Muslims and in the Middle East. I don’t understand why they’d choose Farmersville.”
He explains that his daughter has vowed to move out of Farmersville if the cemetery goes ahead as planned. “She’s concerned that they’re going to take over,” he said.
Not everyone is worried, though. Peggy Harp, who has lived in the town since 1994, said she “would actually welcome the cemetery. I think it would be nice to have some diversity in Farmersville.”
“We all need to bury our loved ones,” she said. “Probably people with the most ignorance and fear are the ones being the loudest.”
Salem said that the staunch opposition to the cemetery sends a message to Muslims. “Even in death people are afraid of Muslims. Even at our most sad and vulnerable times as human beings — when we lose a loved one — we can’t even bury our dead with peaceful dignity,” he said.
In Farmersville, Abdur-Rashid said that the IACC “won’t be deterred by threats” and that the group fully intends to move forward with the cemetery. “We will respond gently with grace and composure but firmly stand our ground.”