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Muslims In Plano Had Been Building Bridges For Years, Then Came A Council Member's Facebook Post

Stella M. Chavez
Shaheen Salam has been a Plano resident for 20 years. She's also a member of the city's Multicultural Outreach Rountable, which brings together different religious and ethnic groups for events and other activities.

A Plano City Council member generated headlines – and controversy – a couple of weeks ago when he posted a video on his Facebook page, calling for a ban on Islam in schools. Tom Harrison later apologized.

Despite calls to resign, Harrison says he’s not stepping down. Many in Plano say the council member’s actions were a blow to the city’s Muslim community.

On a recent week night, women, men and children kneeled and prayed inside the Islamic Association of Collin County.  

The Plano mosque opened in 2001. Today there are five mosques in the city – a sign of Plano’s growing diversity.

Just over half of the nearly 300,000 people who live in Plano are white. Nearly 20 percent is Asian and about 15 percent is Hispanic. One in four residents is foreign born.

That’s why members of the mosque say Plano Council member Tom Harrison’s Facebook post was disappointing.

“You hear about these things happening all across the country, the world, even the state,” said Bilal Moon, communications director of the Plano mosque. “But then when it happens in your city, a city I’ve grown up in and I’ve come to know as a very diverse city, when something like this rears its ugly head, it’s shocking.”

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Men are gathered to pray at the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano.

Moon thinks most Plano residents don’t have negative views of Muslims or their religion. He points to how Muslims across Plano and Collin County have reached out to different religious and ethnic groups. They want to help others better understand Islam.

“It’s not something that we should have to do, but it’s a burden that most minority groups tend to deal with anyway,” Moon said. “And we’ve risen to that occasion, whether it be these open houses we hold at our mosques [or] our medical and dental clinic [that] are open to the greater community. We’ve been engaged with the food bank for so many years now. ”

Every year, the mosque also hosts an interfaith event during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. That’s when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

Other North Texas mosques have had open houses and panel discussions on different issues, like sexual harassment and immigration.

“Our policy is an open-door policy,” said Nafis Pathan, president of the Islamic Association of Collin County. “Anyone who’s interested to learn about our culture, our religion, [are] most welcome. We join hands with them. We go to their places, too. We go to churches, we go to synagogues. We take part in their activities. So we are a very inclusive community.”

Members of the Plano City Council say they also want to be inclusive. They and the mayor called on council member Tom Harrison to step down after his controversial Facebook message. The post encouraged President Trump to ban Islam in schools.

Days after the post, the City Council held a special meeting to censure Harrison. Several council members said they were concerned about other social media messages Harrison posted. 

Credit City of Plano; Facebook
Plano City Council Member Tom Harrison was elected in 2015.

Harrison defended himself and said he wouldn’t resign.

“I am not xenophobic. I am not a bigot. I am not a racist,” Harrison said. “What I am is someone who was elected, told people I would do a job for everyone in Plano.”

At that meeting, Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Ron Kelley said it’s his duty to serve all residents in the city and he apologized to those who were hurt by Harrison’s post.

“I talked to several leaders in the Muslim community and I was heartbroken,” Kelley said. “I was heartbroken with what they shared with me.”

Longtime Plano resident Shaheen Salam describes how she felt after seeing Harrison’s Facebook post.

“At first I couldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable,” Salam said. “If it had come from an ordinary citizen, probably I would not have felt so shocked. But when I saw that, I said, ‘How can this be possible?’ ”

Salam has spent 20 years educating people about Islam. As co-chair of the city’s Multicultural Outreach Roundtable, she helps plan educational events and meet-ups. She also takes community concerns to the City Council.

“I just sat down and I said, ‘What should I do? What am I going to do about this?’ ” Salam said.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Women and girls are gathered to pray inside the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano.

Salam and others are signing a petition to recall councilman Tom Harrison.

The petition needs nearly 2,800 signatures. If enough people sign it, the City Council would have to call for an election in November.

Salam says what Harrison shared on social media affects all of Plano.

“It is not just the Muslim community that has been impacted. This could happen to any community down the road,” Salam said. “Because what has happened in the United States. We know the history. It has happened to the Japanese, to the Jews, the Italians. This has got to stop.”

Salam hopes speaking out will stop others from repeating that history.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.