How Wichita mosque speaker controversy played out

Protests at the mosque at 6655 E. 34th St. North are unusual, said Hussam Madi, spokesman for the local Islamic Society.
Protests at the mosque at 6655 E. 34th St. North are unusual, said Hussam Madi, spokesman for the local Islamic Society. The Wichita Eagle

The morning of Thursday, March 24, Hussam Madi got a call from Wichita police.

They said between 20 and 50 protesters would be outside the Islamic Society of Wichita mosque, off K-96 near Woodlawn, that Friday night.

It was the beginning of a collision course between freedom of expression, freedom of religion, community sensitivities and fear of violence. And some might say the right to bear arms, including assault rifles, in a public place.

A week later, the collision is still reverberating.

A protest at the Wichita mosque is unusual. It has happened maybe three times in 20 years, said Madi, a U.S. citizen, Wichita businessman, 49-year-old father of “very, very active (Wichita State University) Shocker students” and spokesman for the local Islamic Society.

Police told Madi that their understanding was that the protest would be peaceful, Madi recalled this past week. Whatever happens, police told him, “We’ll be visible.”

The people planning to protest were upset that the Islamic Society was bringing in Monzer Taleb as a speaker. They viewed Taleb as having been a supporter of terrorism.

Madi said Taleb’s message was to be only one of peace – sharing wealth, doing good deeds. The event was a fundraiser to help the Islamic Society pay for its local activities, especially its school.

But by late the night of March 24, Madi learned from a television station news report that some protesters might come “heavily armed.”

And the specter of armed protesters changed everything, Madi said now.

“We felt threatened.”

For the Islamic Society, there were layers of consideration: There were 200 children to protect. They attend Annoor Islamic School, with pre-kindergarten through ninth grade. The school sits next to the mosque.

Because of the perceived threat, the schoolchildren were sent home early that Friday morning after word of the protest spread. About 800 people were going to be at the fundraiser that Friday night. They had to be protected, too.

The mosque also didn’t want a protest to disturb services at a Lutheran church across the street.

It was a coincidence that Taleb’s talk was scheduled on a Christian holy day, Good Friday, Madi said.

Taleb had spoken at least four times earlier at the mosque without protest, as late as December 2014, Madi said.

Another key factor for the mosque: U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, issued a lengthy statement that Thursday calling on the Islamic Society to cancel Taleb’s appearance on “Holy Friday” and saying that if the society didn’t, “They will be responsible for the damage among religious faiths that is sure to follow.”

The Islamic Society decided late that Thursday night to call off the event out of safety concerns and because the members didn’t want to be tagged as supporting terrorism, Madi said.

It worries the Islamic Society that “somebody was probably digging and looking” at its activities, Madi said.

“That’s another part of what we find scary,” he said. “You feel like you are being watched.”

Protesters’ postings

Someone indeed was talking about watching the mosque, according to Facebook communications between people organizing and discussing the planned protest.

The messages began with an announcement at 10:43 a.m. March 23 that the protesters were gathering at the church near the mosque the evening of March 25.

“Please bring ur flags,” the announcement said. The plan was to stay between the sidewalk and road or face being arrested.

“No hate speech and no aggravating the situation,” it added.

Succeeding posts included photos of Taleb and accusations that he raised funds for Hamas, referred to as “a terrorist organization.”

One person in the social media comments responded to the organizer by saying: “We can’t speak hateful towards them? And … police are basically there and waiting for us to (mess) up?

“Sounds like bigger actions need to take place rather than a peaceful protest. … Half them (slur) in there are some of the best doctors and engineers Wichita has.”

The organizer responded that the Islamic Society has the right to freedom of religion.

“You know as much as I do we can’t just come out and start war. I’m totally against Islam. But we don’t want media to spin this (stuff) around on us”

Later, he added that he didn’t know about the planned speaker, Taleb, until the night before his Facebook posting.

“When I brought up doing recon on the mosque since they are building something new in the area. Then I came across it on there web page. I posted it and Texas militia contacted me because he’s (Taleb’s) from there”

The Facebook conversation turned to weapons: “Secondary is fine. But please no rifles or tactical gear,” the organizer posted. “Secondary” in the context of weapons often refers to back-up weapons, specifically handguns.

Then another man posted this: “its totally legal, i would, just in case … damn I want to bring missile launcher … and tank”

The Eagle couldn’t reach the man who appeared to be the organizer.

The organizer noted that members of a Kansas family would be at the protest, and that one family member had been present when “lavoy got shot.” It appeared to be a reference to LaVoy Finicum, a 55-year-old militia spokesman who was shot and killed by police in January after Finicum and others had illegally occupied a national wildlife refuge in Oregon.

Law enforcement intelligence

That Thursday, the day before Taleb’s planned talk, word came to the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office and the Wichita Police Department from an FBI terrorism task force that armed protesters would be at the mosque, Sheriff Jeff Easter said.

The Sheriff’s Office would have assisted the Police Department if needed.

Asked about the issue, FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton gave this statement Wednesday: “We were made aware of the perceived threat. And we were in contact with the local authorities. If there were or would be credible threat information, the FBI would take appropriate action to address such a threat.”

Wichita police spokeswoman Lt. James Espinoza wouldn’t say anything about the mosque issue.

Easter, a former Wichita police captain, said he knows of no active criminal investigation of a threat to the mosque. He said he has never been at a protest in the city where protesters were visibly armed.

The information he got from the FBI task force is that the protesters were members of a group called Kansas Security Force or Forces.

“I know nothing about them,” Easter said. “This is the first time they popped up on our radar.”

It would be legal for the protesters to show guns – including an AK-47 assault rifle, for example – if they legally had the firearms and didn’t point or shoot them, Easter said.

“The information we got was that they were going to be peaceful, but they were going to be armed because they can,” he said.

The sheriff also noted that he had a concern about the choice of Taleb as a speaker and the timing of his planned appearance.

“I don’t agree with what this guy stands for,” Easter said. “But he has a right to have his First Amendment rights (voiced).”

Easter said he views Taleb as “someone who had ties to a terrorist organization. I was very surprised that they would bring that kind of person in to speak to their congregation,” especially during a Christian holiday.

What Pompeo said

On the day before Taleb was to speak, Pompeo issued a statement asking the Islamic Society to cancel the address.

The congressman said that while the Islamic Society had a First Amendment right, it “does not permit the Islamic Society of Wichita to escape responsibility for the horrible judgment of doing so – especially by doing so on this important Christian day.”

Pompeo, who describes himself as an evangelical Christian, added that on “one of the most holy days on the Christian calendar, and only days after radical Islamic extremists murdered dozens of innocents of many faiths in Brussels, Belgium, they chose to bring a Hamas-connected sheik to their community center here in Wichita.”

Pompeo, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Hamas is a “designated terrorist organization that has the destruction of Israel as its core tenet and terror and murder as its core operating principle.”

“I can find no mention of the Brussels murders on ISW’s website, facebook page or twitter account,” Pompeo said, referring to the Islamic Society of Wichita. “This is unconscionable. ISW and its leaders should use this to condemn this attack instead of celebrating Sheik Talib.”

In a phone interview Friday, Pompeo said he didn’t learn about Taleb’s address until mid-morning the day before Taleb was to appear. Pompeo said he got a call notifying him about the planned speaker, but the congressman wouldn’t say who called.

Pompeo reiterated on Friday that although he understands the Islamic Society’s right to bring in any speaker it wants, “This is a Hamas-linked cleric.”

Taleb has confirmed that by his own words, Pompeo said.

“There’s no guessing on this one. I do know about Hamas activities in the United States from my work on the committee.”

In defense of speaker

Alia Salem, spokeswoman for the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Taleb has been inaccurately and unfairly depicted.

Taleb wouldn’t speak directly to The Eagle; Salem said she was speaking for him. He lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Salem described Taleb as a motivational speaker and leader within the Muslim community who travels the nation. She said he was going to speak in Wichita to raise money for the Islamic Society’s school.

Taleb, now in his early 50s, is a U.S. citizen who has “been in this country 30 years. He’s never been arrested. He’s an upstanding citizen,” Salem said.

“He is a very prominent community leader here in Dallas,” who attends meetings with Texas law enforcement officials in a state that has some of the strictest law enforcement, she said.

In the past, Taleb has been heavily monitored and questioned, she said.

“And if there was any issue, he would not be anyone who is walking the streets today,” she said. “He’s gone through the strongest possible vetting.”

Taleb feels he has been scapegoated by some politicians, including Pompeo, she said. “Pompeo’s latching on to a disturbing trend among GOP politicians,” Salem said.

Pompeo on Friday denied that he is scapegoating Taleb.

“I have been very clear to steer away from any person who has (argued) that all Muslims are persons that we have to fear,” he said. “I have been criticized for that, too.”

But now, thousands of people have been killed and millions more displaced by “radical Islamic terrorists,” Pompeo said. “And that now has reached into our country, and we need … every faith doing everything they can to push back on this violence and terror.”

Salem, the spokeswoman for Taleb, argued that it’s “completely untrue” that Taleb supports terrorism. He has been accused of calling for the destruction of Israel. But there is a key distinction, she said: He has advocated for the freedom of the Palestinian people, and in doing so, he has opposed oppression of Palestinians.

As for the timing of his planned appearance at the Wichita mosque, she said Muslims practicing their religion “don’t look at other people’s calendar to schedule events,” just as Christians don’t check to see whether their events mesh with other religions’ schedules.

How did Taleb feel about the Islamic Society’s decision to cancel his address? A “mixture of disappointment and understanding,” Salem said. “Disappointment that people could get to them so easily. But there’s also understanding because of the need to protect our community from violence.”

In Texas, Salem said, it’s not uncommon for “right-wing zealots” to lash out with hate speech on Facebook and to make threatening phone calls. Someone threatened to fire an assault rifle and “not leave until they had emptied into the crowd,” she said.

Anti-Muslim protest organizers usually know the bounds of the law, she said. What worries Muslim groups the most are those people who heed the call to protest but ignore the law – the ones who are intent on violence, she said.

Dallas mosques experienced three armed protests this past fall and winter, she said.

“Every time we have an election season, it gets worse and worse,” with people reacting by lashing out at Muslims “and responding to the politicians’ rhetoric,” Salem said.

‘Fearful environment’

Madi, the spokesman for the Islamic Society of Wichita, said the group was still working out final details of the fundraiser the night before Taleb was to speak, when it got a call from a local TV station asking for its response to Pompeo’s comments. The group hadn’t yet seen Pompeo’s comments, Madi said, and he told the station he couldn’t respond.

About an hour later, the Islamic Society saw the station’s news report saying there could be heavily armed protesters.

Not everyone in the Islamic Society agreed that the event should be canceled, but safety became the deciding issue, Madi said.

The Islamic Society also didn’t want to be accused of supporting terrorism “because that’s not what we promote,” he said.

The Friday that Taleb was to speak, Madi told police the event was canceled.

“I told them (it was) because of Mike Pompeo’s comments” and for the safety and security of the mosque and the church nearby.

Madi got a call from U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom, after word spread that there would be a protest, asking Madi whether everything was OK.

“And I told him we canceled it. He asked me if I knew anything about the speaker. I told him I don’t know anything he doesn’t know.”

What’s particularly upsetting for the Islamic Society, Madi said, is the idea of armed people showing up where children learn and live out their religion. The children were born in the United States.

“These children are definitely American,” Madi said. America is “all they know.”

Now, the older children are asking why protesters would come with guns.

And Madi posed a question: “Do we really want them to grow up in that fearful environment?”

Tim Potter: 316-268-6684, @terporter