How one Texas man offered a message of hope to Muslim-Americans

Justin Normand stood outside a mosque Thanksgiving weekend, one of numerous displays of compassion Americans have shown the Muslim community recently. 

Courtesy of Justin Normand/AP
Justin Normand holds a sign of support outside the Islamic Center of Irving, Texas. Normand says his 'You Belong' message was prompted by hatred directed at Muslims as part of the recent presidential election.

A Texas man is spreading a message of solidarity with Muslim-Americans through a sign crafted in the colors of the American flag.

“You belong. Stay strong. Be blessed. We are one America,” reads the poster Justin Normand, sporting a cowboy hat and white beard, held on the sidewalk outside of the Islamic Center of Irving near Dallas on Thanksgiving weekend.

Since the Mr. Normand first stood in front of the mosque on Friday, pictures and videos of him have gone viral. A picture of him on Twitter was retweeted more than 64,000 times, with thousands of others reacting similarly on Facebook and Reddit.

Normand’s simple message is one of numerous displays of compassion some Americans have shown Muslim-Americans to counter the racism, bigotry, and hatred the Muslim community has reported in record numbers recently. Though crimes against Muslims have been on the rise in response to terrorism attacks in the United States and abroad, they increased considerably during the presidential election and victory of Donald Trump. In response to these threats and attacks, however, Americans like Normand are finding ways to combat fear through kindness.

“I can never, and will never, change any of the haters. It’s not about them. Not this time, and not here,” Normand wrote in a Facebook post in which he identified himself as the man in the photo. “This was about binding up the wounded. About showing compassion and empathy for the hurting and fearful among us. Or, in some Christian traditions, this was about washing my brother’s feet.”

Normand, the manager of a nearby sign shop, said he had the urge to stand outside the mosque for about a week.   

“Friday, I had a couple of spare hours in the afternoon, so I did," he wrote on Facebook.

He returned for a few hours Saturday and Sunday.

The picture of Normand received grateful comments on Twitter at a time when Muslims have said they have been subjected to racism, bigotry, and hate following Mr. Trump's election. During his campaign, the president-elect called for a ban on Muslim immigrants.

While Trump has softened his rhetoric on Muslim immigration since Election Day, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has reported there have been more than 100 anti-Muslim incidents across the country since Nov. 8, according to The Washington Post. The day after the election, a hijab-wearing student at San Diego State University said she was briefly choked by suspects who made remarks about Trump’s victory. Several California mosques also received letters that celebrated Trump’s win and compared his plan to target Muslims to Adolf Hitler’s attempted genocide of Jews in Nazi Germany.

“There’s a new sheriff in town – President Donald Trump,” the letter said. “He’s going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And, he’s going to start with you Muslims. He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the jews [sic].”

Texas and the Islamic Center of Irving have served as a kind of flashpoint in the culture wars surrounding Muslim identity in the United States. High school student Ahmed Mohamed, who was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school that a teacher mistook for a bomb, had attended the mosque with his family before they packed up and moved to Qatar. Following the Paris attacks in November 2015, demonstrators had gathered in front of the mosque with guns and signs proposing to “Stop the Islamization of America,” the Dallas Morning News’s Avi Selk reported at the time.

“However, it is safe to say 2016 is now the worst year on record when it comes to Islamic places of worship being targeted by bias,” Corey Saylor, director of the department to monitor and combat Islamophobia at CAIR, told CBS News.

But Mr. Saylor added that Normand’s act is a reminder of the ideals that “make America awesome.”

Other groups have reached out to Muslim-Americans as a way to show compassion. In November, hundreds of people sat shoulder-to-shoulder at New York University’s student center to express solidarity after the word “Trump!” was scrawled on the door of a Muslim prayer space at the school. As The Christian Science Monitor reported, some Americans have also launched volunteer programs, including one that accompanies those who feel unsafe on their commute to work.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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