Unwelcome

Why Is Farmersville, Texas, So Dead-Set Against a Muslim Cemetery?

Ugly prejudice was freely voiced in the Texas town when the townspeople met to discuss plans to build a Muslim cemetery there.

08.05.15 6:20 PM ET

In the town of Farmersville, Texas—a far-flung suburb of Dallas 20 miles from Garland where the Draw the Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest was held—area Muslims have purchased a 35-acre tract on Lake Lavon for a new Muslim cemetery.

The cartoon contest—which I reported on for The Daily Beast—erupted in chaos when two gunmen, Elton Simpson, 30, and Nadir Hamid Soofi, 34, were killed by police after opening fire on a security guard outside the contest.

Ever since the cemetery proposal was announced this summer the plans have been cause for controversy and outrage.

Tuesday night, in a town of 3,000 people, between 300 and 400 people gathered in the Farmersville High School cafeteria/auditorium for a town hall meeting to discuss the plans: Every seat was filled and an overflow crowd lined the walls and filled the adjacent hallway, small children playing quietly in front of their parents and grandparents.

The temperature at 6 p.m. was 98 degrees; inside, the thermostat read 78 but, with a standing-room-only crowd, the temperature continued to climb during the two-hour meeting.

Women fanned themselves in tropical prints, faded pink “Texas Pride” T-shirts, and polyester blouses; men wore cowboy hats, overalls, and the same denim-blue mechanic’s shirts that hipsters wear ironically. There were red-white-and-blue baseball caps. More than half the audience was over 60.

Just before the first question was read and the panel given two minutes to respond, a prayer was said invoking Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the entire audience sitting with heads bowed and many hands folded.

The oldest headstone in the Muslim section of Dallas’s Restland Cemetery was placed for Qasem Abusaad, a 15-year-old who, according to his gravestone, was born on June 9, 1957 and died on June 2, 1973.

Muslims have been buried in the Dallas area for decades with no concerns about health violations or contamination, but in Farmersville those concerns were very prevalent.

The first written question was: “What is the Muslim burial process, and will there be seepage?”

Khalil Abdur-Rashid, a black Islamic scholar born in the U.S. who was representing the Islamic Association of Collin County at the meeting (and whose name the moderator pretended to stumble over), did not directly answer, merely saying that the Muslim section in Restland will be filled to capacity within a few years and a new site was sorely needed.

The city attorney, Alan Lathrom, did respond to the question regarding “seepage,” saying that all plans had been reviewed by appropriate Texas officials and there had been no concerns raised.

Five local Islamic centers made a joint effort to find a new Muslim burial site, Abdur-Rashid said, and, because no new cemeteries are permitted within Dallas County, chose a rural site about 45 miles northeast of downtown.

The land overlooking Lake Lavon sits along Audie Murphy Parkway across from the Kalachakra Meditation center and the scarily-appropriate “The Crypt”—“an acre of labyrinth mazes, dark hallways, and bone chilling effects. If you thought last year was scary, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Audie Murphy Parkway was named for a former Farmersville resident who was also WWII’s most decorated soldier; a couple miles to the west, in Princeton, is a community park that housed Nazi POWs during World War II.

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Not much has happened in Farmersville since WWII, and what does happen happens slowly: a sign announcing the “future site of Collin County College” has stood in an empty field for the last seven years.

When the town hall was turned over to an open mic, the second person to get up was Darrell Moore, “Commander of Farmersville VFW Post 7426,” who represents WWII veterans still living in town.

He said, “People, we have received a lot of phone calls. We have received letters from out of state, OK. I want you all to understand something. We are a veterans’ organization. We are not the police. We have been called on to do illegal activities.” (Moore didn’t specify what he meant, but presumably activities to somehow resist the planned cemetery.)

“It’s not gonna happen,” Moore continued. “I’m gonna save y’all a lot of phone calls and a lot of time. The position of the VFW in this situation is the VFW will support whatever laws, regulations, and ordinances set forth by the state and local government. We are not the police department. We are not going to take a stand on this either way.

“It would be very hypocritical for us to step in and try to prevent the freedom of religion, freedom of speech—we all went over, the veterans in our organization, we all went and fought for everybody here’s freedom…”

Here audience members interrupted him, shouting “thank you!” and giving him rousing applause.

The questions during open mic were directed primarily at Farmersville Mayor Joe Helmberger and Abdur-Rashid; Helmberger struggled to maintain order throughout, continually (and weakly) calling for respect when the audience would jeer and hiss and interrupt Abdur-Rashid.

The Muslim representative’s demeanor was not unlike an exasperated high school teacher who, while remaining calm, can’t help but communicate to his students that he thinks they’re a little thick.

“American Muslims are not your enemies,” he told them. “We are not anti-American, anti-freedom, radical, extreme, or dangerous. We are, like you, part and parcel of the fabric of American society … You may have been told that the Koran advocates violence, murder, rape…”

At this point there were shouts of “It does! It does!,” and loud clapping.

Mayor Helmberger timidly asked for quiet and respect.

“You may have been told that, but that is a lie and an invented fabrication,” Abdur-Rashid continued.

“No!,” a woman near the front yelled.

“You may have been told that the Koran tells Muslims to take Jews and Christians as enemies and not as friends. That is a lie, and an invented fabrication,” Abdur-Rashid continued. “You may have been told that wherever Muslims go, danger follows. That is a lie, and an invented fabrication. There is indeed an orchestrated attempt by some to plant the seeds of hatred and discord into others in an effort of demonization.

“You have been brainwashed and you have been used to further this cause. The time has arrived for American Muslims and American Christians to stand together against the agencies of hate…We believe in the scripture that you have and what has been revealed to us. Our God, and your God, are one.”

The roar that erupted from the audience was immediate and deafening. Abdur-Rashid went on, talking about Muslims and how they cared for their dead, but he’d lost a crowd that now refused to be quiet.

Later, another question was asked: “Will a mosque ever be built on this property?”

Abdur-Rashid: “It’s not in the plans, no.”

The audience erupted in laughter and jeers, as if their idea of “the invader” had at last revealed the plans they were hep to all along.

“If a mosque were to be built there then a plan would have to be submitted,” said Mayor Helmberger.

“So there IS a plan!” shouted a woman in the audience; there were other similar shouts from across the hall.

The mayor replied, wearily: “Let me be perfectly honest with you all. If they were to purchase more property in the county… and decided to build a mosque, they could go to the county and permit this thing without the city ever knowing.”

Near the end of the town hall, there was a moment of levity: A woman with a thick accent said, “I’m from Germany and, as you know, in Germany we have a past that brings tear to our eyes because, forgive me I’m not Jewish, but we discriminated and eliminated Jewish people. So…I do not think that our beloved Lake Lavon where I go swimming and kayaking almost every day is going to be contaminated by dead Muslims!”

The audience went quiet. She went on to ask whether or not, if she got angry at her husband and killed him, could she bury him on her land? The audience, for the first time that evening, laughed, and the mic was taken away.

Throughout the night, resident after resident of Farmersville stated that they didn’t trust Muslims, that Islam wasn’t a religion; one woman, who said she’d taught school in Farmersville for 39 years, tried to connect Rashid with an ancient Islamic text mentioning the attractiveness of pubescent girls.

There were whoops and whistles and jeers and cheering, and a mayor who asked for respect but continually told his audience that he didn’t support the cemetery but there was simply nothing he could do.

Shouts aimed at Abdur-Rashid of “You’re lying!” and “You’re not welcome here!” echoed throughout the cafeteria.

Near the end of the meeting a woman stood up and argued that Muslims were foreign to Farmersville. “You’re not part of our community,” she said. “You don’t live here, you don’t come out and support the football team, you don’t shop here. Our cemetery in town is still very loved and taken care of by its community.

“I do not have the confidence that you will be here in 40 years taking care of your cemetery. I have just one question: With all of this opposition, why do you want to stay here?”

Abdur-Rashid began to answer: “You know, Gandhi once said…”

He was interrupted immediately with guffaws and jeers and a general uproar, but went on: “Anything of human value doesn’t come easy, it comes through some hardship—and when it comes to our needs as a community and our obligations and our rights, we have to stand up for that.”

After the meeting concluded, one of the three women in a hijab was crying in the arms of a friend.

Throughout the evening the mayor and city attorney seemed to be saying, from what this reporter understood, that the planned cemetery would go ahead as planned. The town hall meeting was ceremonial only, a venting session.

Farmersville will likely have a Muslim cemetery on its outskirts, welcome or not.