Last May, nearly 100 demonstrators gathered around the Islamic Da’wah Center in downtown Houston, squaring off against one another in competing camps.
The “Stop Islamization of Texas” protest was, on its face, largely similar to any number of other tense, vitriolic demonstrations that percolated through 2016. On the one end: a crew carrying Confederate flags, #WhiteLivesMatter banners, and heavy weaponry. On the other: counter-protesters with signs decrying Islamophobia, calling for communal unity, and a bubble machine going at full blast.
The organizers behind the anti-Islam protesters, however, never showed. And now, over 16 months later, we know why.
As CNN reported last week, the protest was put together by the “Heart of Texas” Facebook page – a page that was revealed last month as one of the fake accounts operated out of Russia. Unlike the November anti-Hillary Clinton, pro-secession rallies the page attempted to organize across Texas, the May protest not only brought armed protesters, but a raft of counter-protesters to face down those calling for “white power!”
At the time, there was little to differentiate the “Stop Islamization of Texas” protest from the other Islamophobic protests wracking the state, especially in Dallas. “I figured it was the same manifestation of what was happening in Dallas,” Ramon Mejia, of About Face: Veterans Against the War, told ThinkProgress.
Indeed, until CNN’s revelations, there was little to suspect that the protest wasn’t organically homegrown. After all, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign helped generate a greater Islamophobic tail-wind than any campaign prior – and given that people like Aryan Renaissance Society National Director Ken Reed showed up at the Houston protest, claiming the U.S. is “being threatened by the influx of Islam,” the protest clearly carried a distinctly American flavor.
But the revelations point to an even darker reality than the protest itself unveiled. Not only did the “Heart of Texas” page call – successfully – for protesters to bring firearms (“concealed or not!”) but Russian operatives were able to convince armed white supremacists to congregate in downtown Houston, facing off with dozens opposed to their message. Given recent events in Charlottesville, the fact that Russian operatives organized rifle-toting white nationalists into a confrontation with counter-protesters should give pause to politicians on both sides of the aisle – all the more as one of the comments on the “Heart of Texas” page called to “blow … up” the Islamic center.
“What’s relevant about the Russia thing is it absolutely validates the concern that people have that the Russians were putting out completely fabricated stories,” Faisal Shah, a lawyer for the Islamic center, told ThinkProgress. Or as Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of CAIR Texas, told Houston’s ABC affiliate, “This stuff where we see the Russians instigating – you know, that’s crazy.”
Despite the new disclosures about the “Heart of Texas” group, questions remain. For instance, an Instagram page, which posts identical material to the “Heart of Texas” page, went live just as the Russian-linked Facebook pages were taken down. Representatives from Facebook didn’t respond to queries about the Instagram account – which mirrors other Instagram accounts already removed – and questions sent to the account went unanswered.
Likewise, the Islamic Da’wah Center wasn’t exactly a well-known organization, at least internationally – which raises questions about how the “Heart of Texas” page found out about the center in the first place.
“What’s kind of remarkable is that a Russian agent would be burrowing down that deep in the weeds to find a story that’s that local, and cooking up something, fabricating something, at such a small picture, such a detailed picture,” Shah added. “It really gives an indication of the extent to which there must be a major Russian apparatus, that they’re willing to put the kind of resources to drill down that deep. So I’m actually kind of fascinated by just the depth of fake news.”
While Texas secessionists from the Texas Nationalist Movement have made multiple trips to Moscow over the past few years, attending meetings organized by a Kremlin-funded group, they have denied coordinating with the “Heart of Texas” Facebook page.
As with racial tensions and gun rights, the “Stop Islamization of Texas” protest appears the latest indication of Russian operatives targeting socio-political divides in the U.S. However, it also highlights that these tensions were extant prior – and that the protest, despite non-American organization, only pointed to the issues already at play.
“Off-the-cuff, my reaction is it doesn’t make me feel any better that the group was started in Russia, or in Timbuktu, because at the end of the day the problem is that there’s an element of society, unfortunately, that grabbed onto it,” Shah said.
Mejia, one of the counter-protesters, agreed, especially as it pertains to Islamophobic elements in the U.S. “Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry exist in the U.S.,” he added. “The fact that someone outside of the country was able to capitalize on it shows what a real issue this is and the real harm present for Muslim communities with or without outside intervention.”