Upon arriving at CAIR-Arizona’s annual banquet at the Mesa Sheraton, the well-dressed and predominantly Muslim crowd was greeted by women in bejeweled Trump T-shirts screaming into bullhorns. Armed men stood along the side of the road, waving oversize American flags that felt more menacing than patriotic.
“TELL ME, SHOULD I HAVE MY HEAD CUT OFF?” one of the protesters yelled over and over again.
As women in hijabs and floor-length gowns walked quickly towards the entrance, a woman in a “Proud American” T-shirt shouted, “DO YOU LIKE YOUR GENITALS, MA’AM? DO YOU LIKE YOUR GENITALS?”
In the weeks leading up the banquet, the Arizona chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations had received numerous threats.
“There will be a LOT of Muslims and Muslim lovers in a small, contained space,” one Facebook comment read. “Don’t waste the opportunity.”
But more than 600 people showed up anyway — the largest turnout ever, according to executive director Imraan Siddiqi.
"We have a beautiful crowd inside, and a not-so-beautiful crowd outside," board member David Chami joked. "Which kind of explains why we're here tonight."
Over salad and roasted chicken, speaker after speaker talked about the need to defend the Muslim community from hate crimes, racial profiling, and unconstitutional searches and surveillance, and to stand with other marginalized groups whose rights are under attack.
Keynote speaker Linda Sarsour reminded the audience that Martin Luther King Jr. had faced low approval ratings, particularly among white people, and been blacklisted and smeared at the height of the civil rights movement.
“Who cares what they say about CAIR now?” she asked. “Fifty years from now, they’re going to say that CAIR was one of the most effective civil rights organization of all time. It’s like how, 50 years from now, people are going to be walking down Colin Kaepernick Boulevard. Sisters and brothers, this is how history in this country works.”
Sitting back and waiting for the political climate to improve wasn’t going to work, she warned. Instead, Muslims would have to keep fighting for the right to exist in this country.
“Your Pakistani grandfather who came here to go to medical school didn’t just walk off an airplane like ‘Mashallah, I’m unapologetically Muslim,’” she pointed out.
Every once in a while, the doors to the ballroom would open, and you could make out the sound of bullhorns outside.
The protesters had been outside the hotel for a couple of hours before the event began, said a blonde woman in a “White Trash” baseball cap, who would only identify herself as Lisa. Then, she turned suspicious.
“Why?” she asked. “You can tell that I don’t like New Times — the biggest leftist rag out here in Arizona. I actually don’t really want to talk to you.”
Picking up her bullhorn, she told the other dozen or so protesters, “NOBODY TALK TO THE REPORTER FROM NEW TIMES. WE HAVE NO STATEMENT. WE’RE STANDING AGAINST RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISTS LIKE THE ONE WHO JUST MOWED OVER EIGHT PEOPLE ON THE SIDEWALK IN NEW YORK FROM WHICH THERE HAS BEEN NO APOLOGY FROM THE ENTIRE MUSLIM COMMUNITY.”
It was unclear if she wanted each of the 3.3 million Muslims in the United States to issue a personal apology — and if so, who that apology should be directed to. (For the record, here's CAIR's statement condemning the Manhattan terrorist attack.)
The protesters continued to yell.
“LINDA SARSOUR IS A DAMN TERRORIST. NOT WELCOME IN ARIZONA. ARIZONA DOES NOT WANT TERRORIST LINDA SARSOUR HERE.”
Linda Sarsour protest in Mesa AZ no p***y hijabs. https://t.co/pHTacqFcT2— Daniel Barron (@theantiantifa) November 5, 2017
By 10 p.m., as the banquet was wrapping up, just a few of the protesters were still standing outside. They were barely visible in the darkness, but as soon as you stepped out of the door, you could hear them.
“MUHAMMAD IS A PEDOPHILE! MUHAMMAD ABUSES CHILDREN!” someone was yelling.
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A woman wrapped in elegant scarves stood on the curb with her two kids, waiting for a ride.
“Did you hear what they said?” her daughter asked her. The woman stayed silent, looking straight ahead.
“Why would he be saying that?” the boy, who looked to be 11 or 12, said. “That isn’t even true. I wanna go over there and tell them.”
His mother shook her head. All of a sudden, she looked very tired.