Muslims and anti-sharia activists meet, armed, at a Dairy Queen to talk fears about America’s future

A showdown over

sharia

Two groups of men, deeply suspicious of each other, meet at a Dairy Queen

Published on September 22, 2017
FERRIS, Tex.

The two men drove to an isolated parking lot off Highway 45, a midway spot between their adversarial existences, to try to settle their differences. “Meet me at the Dairy Queen,” David Wright, 44, had suggested. Ali Ghouri, 29, obliged. They each brought a friend, and they each brought a gun.

This presentation includes audio from interviews

Wright climbed out of a Ford Lobo, wearing a black sleeveless T-shirt and baggy blue jeans tucked into cowboy boots. Ghouri stepped out of his Toyota Corolla. He had spiked hair and wore a red shirt that matched his red Converses.

The first time they met was five months ago, when Wright led a group of men to Ghouri’s mosque and accused them of supporting terrorists. Wright and the few dozen who came with him were armed with “Stop the Islamization of America” signs and assault rifles.

Ghouri, going against the wishes of mosque leaders, walked up to the protesters with a defiant message: “I have a weapon. You have a weapon. I’m not scared of you.”

The two were on opposite sides in a polarized country, tethered together by a heightening worry over self-preservation. Born and raised in America, they spent most of their lives thinking their homeland was generally safe, a place where they were free to pursue their dreams. That feeling had started to fray, then wilt, and now suspicion and fear were engulfing street corners in bitter protests and harsh words all over the country. They felt as though they were part of the conflict, teetering between their dueling instincts to build walls and to break them down, hoping not to lose themselves in the process.

Both agreed the government wasn’t doing enough. To fill the void, Wright started a militia intent on weeding terrorists out of Texas. He called it BAIR — the Bureau of American Islamic Relations — a play on the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country’s leading Muslim advocacy group. He accused Ghouri’s mosque of funding terrorist activities and warned of the dangers of a growing population oppressing women and gays in secret sharia courts.

“The Muslims make me nervous,” Wright said. “They went to my home town and tried to shoot people. This is Texas. You ain’t going to do that in Texas. I don’t think so. We will kill you first.”

Ghouri said he had been bullied for being Muslim at different points in his life, but those forces seemed even more emboldened, more radical — more regular — than ever. President Trump wasn’t doing enough to stop it and, in his view, was enabling it.

“David is scared, but I feel our fears are more rational,” Ghouri said. Concerned about where things were headed, he bought a gun to protect himself from men such as Wright and his acolytes.

One of them, Christopher Gambino, a 35-year-old construction developer, drove Wright to the Dairy Queen. He was trying to make sense of how the growing Muslim population would affect the country he loved.

“These days, it is hard to figure out who to believe,” he said before the meeting. “It is hard to know what’s good and what’s bad.”

With Ghouri came Tameem Budri, a 33-year-old IT specialist who said he wanted to get a sense of how deranged a person must be to carry a gun outside a house of worship. “I don’t know what their goals are,” Budri said. “It just seems like they are peddling an industry of propaganda.”

The Dairy Queen was quiet when they walked in that Sunday afternoon. They ordered onion rings, jalapeño bacon burgers and fries and sat at a table right next to the men’s bathroom. Budri and Ghouri sat on one side, Gambino and Wright on the other. Above them, a muted television hung on the wall, showing “Fox News Sunday.” The chyron read: “Has diplomacy failed the US?”

Gambino gulped his soda and broke the ice.

“So,” he asked, “what do y’all make of the demographic death of white people in America?”

David Wright, left, and Christopher Gambino sit across from Ali Ghouri, right, and Tameem Budri at the Dairy Queen on Aug. 20. (Ilana Panich-Linsman For The Washington Post)

Wright had been suspicious of Islam since he got an uneasy feeling watching a group of women in niqabs cross the street outside the Islamic Association of North Texas, in nearby Richardson.

“I remember feeling that’s not right, and this was before 9/11,” he said. “This religion don’t look like light. It looks dark. It doesn’t look peaceful.”
His feelings hardened in May 2015 when two men traveled from Phoenix and fired bullets outside an anti-Islam event at a community conference center in Garland, Tex., his home town.

Wright, who runs his own construction business, wanted to understand why. He read his old encyclopedia yearbooks, did some research at the local library and then searched on the Internet. His reading reinforced his belief that moderate Muslims were not doing enough to stop extremists and spurred fears that many might secretly support them.

Wright decided the correct response was to become an extremist himself — “but for a cause that is good.”

On Facebook, he posted a meme of a snake looming in a lawn; the grass signified moderate Muslims shielding radicals.

In his Googling, Wright came across something he found particularly troubling: Three members of the mosque in Richardson had been associated with the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a charitable organization that was indicted by the George W. Bush administration in connection with donating $12 million to Hamas.

Members of the mosque had argued that the money was going to Palestinian families affected by war; the Bush administration contended it was being used to fund terrorism.

And thus Wright began his personal crusade. He wanted proof that the mosque was no longer funding terrorism.

“The Muslims make me nervous. They went to my hometown and tried to shoot people. This is Texas. You ain’t gonna do that in Texas. I don’t think so. We will kill you first.”

David Wright

In December 2015, Wright showed up at the mosque. He had ditched his normal attire — button-up shirt and loafers, what he called “the Barack Obama style” — in favor of a black T-shirt that showed off his shoulder tattoo depicting the 3 Percenters, an anti-government militia movement. He came with six of his buddies. He carried a 12-gauge. Others carried AR-15s.

“We didn’t do it because we want to look like bada‑‑‑s. We did it because we needed protection,” Wright said. “I’m not going out like the people in France did,” a reference to the 2015 shootings at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine.

Reporters showed up, too. They stuck a microphone in Wright’s face when two unidentified members of the mosque approached. One man came in camouflage; the other carried a sign that said “Islam is a Religion of Peace.”

The man in camouflage thought Wright’s concern was easy to fix. He encouraged Wright to file a public information request to get the mosque’s financial records.

Wright didn’t want to do that. He declared that he had the right to walk in and examine the books himself. He didn’t trust official tax documents.

“They have ways to make it where it flies under the radar,” Wright told the man in a video recording of the encounter. “The Clintons, for example, they are professionals at that.”

The video ends with the mosque members inviting Wright to come with them to meet an FBI agent who could vouch that mosques — not just theirs but across the country — have been working hard to identify and turn in suspected terrorists. Wright said he thought that might be a good idea, but the two never followed up.

Instead, Wright used the footage to recruit more members.

“My first videotaped debate,” Wright wrote when he posted the video on BAIR’s Facebook page. He started getting messages from around the country.

Armed protesters from the Bureau of American-Islamic Relations stage a demonstration in front of the Islamic Association of North Texas on Dec. 12, 2015, in Richardson. (John Moore/Getty Images)

More Texans wanted to join his cause. So did private investigators and veterans, he said. Their vigilante operation began to metastasize. There were meetings in undisclosed places “in the sticks” to share information about things they read and heard about Islam. At the meetings, they looked at satellite images of mosques in rural areas in case they were masquerading as training centers for the Islamic State. Despite their suspicions, they haven’t taken any action.

They practiced shooting at targets from up close and afar, and they drilled how to advance in case of an ambush — training for a possible sudden onslaught from counterprotesters.

They felt righteous and saw themselves as modern-day follow-ups to the Founding Fathers — self-motivated and -taught, taking on a larger global force. Standing up against that kind of threat reaffirmed their sense of what it meant to be an American.

“We are exercising our Second Amendment rights to protect our First Amendment rights,” Wright liked to say, even though he grew nervous about what some of his fellow members were saying. Some called for genocide of everyone who wasn’t white. He publicly yelled at the Ku Klux Klan when they tried to become allies. “Those guys are bigots,” he told news reporters at the time. Others wanted to do something more menacing than just showing up with guns.

“They want to take pigs’ heads and hang them on signs, put bacon on buildings,” Wright recalled one recent day at dinner with a friend. “There’s a lot of goofy people on our side, and that stuff is counterproductive. My goal is not to make fun of Muslims; it’s to point out the people who are the problem.”

He started explaining his mission to the waitress when she asked how his day was going.

“I remember seeing you on the news,” said the waitress, who was African American.

“Those people, sometimes they call me the KKK,” Wright said. “That’s offensive. I got black people in my group. I have gay people in my group. Now, everyone has a special feeling for pride for their own race and culture. I do, you do — the people, the food. But even if I like our food more, I also like collard greens and hot sauce.”

Few things are more irritating to Wright than being falsely accused because of the way he looks.

“I am not a white supremacist,” he told her. “I hate those guys.”

“It’s just that by 2050, or something, there will be more Muslims than Christians,” his friend Tommy interjected. “Then what’s going to happen with the world?”

“That’s interesting,” said the waitress. “Let me follow you on Facebook.”

Men pray at the Islamic Center of Irving. (Ilana Panich Linsman For The Washington Post)

Ghouri, the son of Pakistani immigrants, moved to Dallas from Chicago in July 2001. He was 13. He was coming out of art class on Sept. 12, 2001, when he got a funny feeling someone was behind him.

“Four white guys jumped me,” Ghouri said. There were bruised knees and bloody noses. “All of us ended up going to the hospital that day.”

He is now married with two kids, living in Plano, Tex. After the middle school fight, Ghouri said, he rarely encountered intimidation because of his faith — until the sharia debate came to the Dallas suburbs.

The idea of sharia, or Islamic law, had become frightening in conservative circles, where right-wing outlets falsely asserted that Muslims were moving to Europe and setting up “no-go zones” in which police were banned and imams made the rules based on sharia. Their fear was that such a phenomenon would happen for real in America.

On a recent episode of his show, Fox News host Tucker Carlson cited a study saying that 29 percent of French Muslims believe their religious code is more important than civil law.

“Why shouldn’t that make Americans nervous as more Muslims move here?” Carlson asked.

Sharia is not a codified document similar to the U.S. Constitution, but refers to guidelines drawn from the Koran and thousands of years of scholarly texts for how to live as a Muslim. Sharia has a broad range of interpretations, but it has become stereotypically associated with extreme and rare applications in places such as Saudi Arabia, where penal codes allow for beheadings. At least nine states have passed laws stating that foreign codes, such as sharia, cannot supersede the Constitution.

In 2015, months before Wright first protested at his mosque, a Breitbart article highlighted a sharia court supposedly operating in the Dallas area.

After the report, Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne publicly pushed the state legislature to ensure Texas would be next to adopt an anti-sharia law. Van Duyne said she didn’t know for sure if Muslims in her part of the Dallas area were practicing sharia law, but she nevertheless declared she would “fight with every fiber of my being” to stop it.

Van Duyne, who now works in the Trump administration, did not respond to requests for comment.

There is, in fact, an “Islamic tribunal” in the Dallas suburbs, but the imam helping to operate it found the debate as laughable as it was disturbing. The tribunal featured three Muslim leaders who were trained in mediation to settle marital disputes, Moujahed Bakhach said. It was no different from seeking help from a priest or rabbi, and Bakhach said the idea of sharia courts was being used to “spark distrust” about Muslims in America.

Ghouri said that’s around the time he felt the mood change. Irving also happened to be the place where a 14-year-old Muslim was arrested in school when a teacher mistook a clock he made for a bomb. Trump, then a presidential candidate, was calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States and also considering heightened surveillance of mosques.

Ghouri said his friends started hearing more people telling them, “Go back to your country!” One friend who was wearing a hijab said men followed her in Sam’s Club, saying, “Take that rag head off!”

That funny feeling he had back in middle school started to nag at him more often. So Ghouri bought his first gun, a Beretta M9 handgun. His friends started to arm themselves, as well. They started practicing and learned about gun handling on YouTube. And, as generations of Americans before them, they were planning on becoming hunters.

When Ghouri heard BAIR was planning to return to the mosque in Richardson, he was relieved. If they were going to show up with guns, Ghouri and his friends would, too. He wanted to stare into the eyes of hateful men to let them know that he and his friends weren’t scared, that they were willing to defend themselves. He hoped that would lead to a more civil discussion.

“I think I saw a little bit in him that he did not want to hate Muslims. Maybe over time, he’d change his beliefs.”

Ali Ghouri

The center’s leadership encouraged Ghouri to abandon his plans because engaging Wright was fruitless.

“A lot of our community has been nervous because they see no difference between what David is doing and what the white supremacists did in Charlottesville,” Ghouri said. “They don’t want to give them any legitimacy. They say I’m naive, but so what if I’m being naive?”

Wright said he thought Ghouri was kidding when he invited him to talk the afternoon of the first protest; he was ready to dismiss the offer. But a local reporter covering the protest overheard an invitation to lunch and told Wright he’d want to come along in case he ever accepted.

“And then it occurred to me that I could get some good publicity if a camera came on,” Wright said. “Maybe they’ll answer my questions about Muslims.”

Wright turned around to go back to Ghouri.

“Let’s go now,” Wright said.

The men talked for two hours at a branch of the Halal Guys, mostly about Wright’s fear that the mosque was still funding terrorists. Ghouri explained that the mosque’s leadership helps vet donations to ensure they don’t go to bad actors. He explained how their religion is a peaceful one.

“I’m not sure I believed him,” Wright said. “But I did get a free lunch out of it. I had a halal sandwich. That was good s---.”

Wright maintained that he didn’t learn anything about Islam from the conversation, but he allowed that “it changed my perspective a little bit. I have a little more trust for the average Muslim person.”

At first, Ghouri felt that lunch made an impact.

“I think I saw a little bit in him that he did not want to hate Muslims,” Ghouri said. “Maybe over time, he’d change his beliefs.”

If that was the case, he needed more than three months. In June, Wright was out front of the mosque again with guns and television cameras. And this time he had 150 people by his side.

David Wright's AR-15 pistol sits inside Christopher Gambino's truck. (Ilana Panich-Linsman For The Washington Post)

By Wright’s side at Dairy Queen was Christopher Gambino, who joined the cause after reading about Wright.

He was what he considered an All-American: a son of two executives in northern Dallas who joined the Boy Scouts and played baseball. He felt as though he was living out the American Dream of his father, who emigrated from Italy, and his mother, whose grandparents came from Ireland.

Now he was trying to explain to two Muslim Americans why he was so concerned about death rates among white Americans.

“The core issue for me is about America and what it means,” said Gambino, causing Ghouri and Budri to pull back from the table and furrow their eyebrows.

“I’m not a white nationalist,” he went on. “I come from a house with very strong values. And some people keep trying to change our values. Like, I love Mexico, but I don’t want to be in that place.”

Budri, Ghouri’s guest, jumped in. He explained that he was born and raised in Texas but that his parents grew up in Afghanistan. He had spent months in their homeland this summer and came away thinking, “It’s not my culture. My culture is American.” In Budri’s mind, more white people dying does not mean America is fading.

“But if you change the nature of a place, then everything changes,” said Gambino, eating fries from a container that said “Se habla Tex Mex.” “I don’t want to see the nature of the culture I’m used to having be changed. I mean, it’s already changed enough.”

Ghouri tried to explain what it means to live as he does, with men like Wright and Gambino targeting him because of his religion. He shared the story about the middle school assault and how those sorts of threats had subsided until last year’s election, when a driver in an SUV looked as though he was going to ram him until Ghouri showed his gun.

Wright and Gambino weren’t sympathetic.

Islamophobia was “made up,” Wright said.

“Do you think people can tell you’re Pakistani?” Gambino asked. “Most people around here would think you’re Hispanic. It’s Christians here who feel embattled.”

Gambino told them of a story he read about how the once-Polish enclave of Hamtramck, Mich., became the country’s first majority-Muslim city. According to World Net Daily — a far-right website — residents referred to it as “Shariahville.” Arabian-style minarets adorn the tops of buildings, and loudspeakers from mosques bleat out calls to prayer five times a day.

“They’re not assimilating,” Gambino said. “That’s the problem.”

“You shouldn’t have to assimilate,” Ghouri replied. “We can integrate. We should learn the language. We should learn the institutions and laws and structures, social and economic. . . . At the same time, we should not be expected to give up our culture.”

“It’s not that,” Gambino replied. “It’s just for Christians, the culture of America that we’re a part of is sort of being usurped.”

“Why does it matter?” Ghouri asked. “Why do you have to feel superior? Are we forcing them to speak another language or do another thing? No. You do whatever you want to do. We are living in a growing and thriving community, and we are going to do what we want to do.”

“It can make some people uncomfortable is all I’m saying,” Gambino said.

“The best way to handle that is to get to know each other,” Ghouri said. “I can understand it’s uncomfortable, but you have to be courageous. Otherwise, this cycle of hate is going to continue and the fear we have of each other will never go away.”

“But it makes us uncomfortable,” Gambino said again.

“Yeah,” Ghouri said. “That’s multiculturalism.”

Wright interjected that some cultures produce bad things, which is why he was so against sharia in this country. He talked about videos he saw of women getting their heads chopped off on YouTube (“Saudi Arabia sucks really bad,” Budri told him. “I don’t know their laws . . . or why that’s okay”) and how offensive it was that Muslims would rather kill gay people than marry them (“So do some Christians,” Budri said) and how he read that leaving the religion is punishable by death.

“You can’t just walk away,” Wright said. “It’s like the mafia.”

“That’s B.S.,” said Budri, adding again that mediation tribunals based on sharia settle civil matters. He described sharia as a guideline for Islam, calling on him to pray five times a day, to treat his wife with respect, to protect his neighbors. He was afraid of no takeover.

“One of the components of sharia law is you respect the rule of law in the land that you live in,” Budri said. “Unless it oppresses your religion — then you leave. But the American legal system is not oppressive to our beliefs.”

“Not yet, anyway,” Ghouri said.

Budri had questions for Wright: Where was he getting his information? To him, it sounded as if Wright was parroting the “propaganda industry” that popularized conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones.

“I ain’t no Alex Jones!” Wright said.

Wright hated the idea of being associated with a man who claimed Hillary Clinton was a Satanist or that Obama was a jihadist or that the Sandy Hook shootings weren’t real. He insisted that his ideas were based on looking at court documents and records and, more recently, speaking in an unofficial capacity with members of the local CAIR branch.

Many, he said, made the same points Budri made. Those points did not nullify “flying jetliners into skyscrapers and going to Christmas parties in San Bernardino and mowing down 14 people,” Wright said.

“And what about Barcelona?” he asked.

“But what about Charlottesville?” Ghouri countered.

“What about the man in your mosque who was caught on terrorism charges?” Wright asked. “I sent you the link about him on Facebook.”

Ghouri said he couldn’t remember the incident, which Wright said was the point.

“You should know what’s going on in your house,” Wright said. “Your house. Whenever I show up, doing what I do, some people are like, ‘You’re a racist, you’re a bigot, you’re the terrorist yourself.’ No, I’m not. I’m none of those things. Instead of focusing on me, why don’t you focus on your own house?”

Budri accepted that Muslims could do more to identify terrorists, but he explained that extremists were fringe characters who were motivated by an ideology beyond their faith in Allah.

Budri noted that Wright was called those names because his ideas weren’t so different from the commentators he despised. Budri questioned why Wright had such little confidence in law enforcement’s ability to do its job.

“You have to be courageous. Otherwise this cycle of hate is going to continue and the fear we have of each other would never go away.”

Ali Ghouri

“Are you trying to be a rock star?” Budri wondered, given that Wright always thought it was appropriate to show up with guns and his militia-style black T-shirt and all those cameras to create a spectacle out of a community center.

The mosque “is not just a place where we go talk to God,” Budri said. “It’s a place where we take our kids to play soccer, to play basketball. There are social events there. How do you expect to dialogue with those people” if you come with guns?

Wright said he had little choice in today’s media climate. It was the large, showy response to fear, the indignant call for self-preservation, that drew people to the cause.

“If I were not to show up with guns, none of y’all would have never paid a damn bit of attention to me,” Wright said.

Budri cut him off. He said he shared the same goals as Wright: He didn’t want to see more people die. After 9/11, Budri said, he even considered joining the military to fight in Afghanistan, but he wasn’t convinced that war would bring stability.

“My whole point is I’ve been spending most of my life, since I’ve been out of high school, trying to understand what’s going on: What can I do about it?” Budri said.

“You can do the right things as an individual,” Wright said. He reminded them of Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who killed four Marines and a Navy sailor in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2015. “He looked kind of like you guys. Young. Americanized.” That is the type of terrorist Budri could stop, he said.

“Do you understand that a man like that would not come and talk to me?” Budri said.

“You’re telling me that if you saw that guy at the mosque, he wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, let’s go to a military base and do this?’ ” Wright said. “There has to be an organizational structure somewhere that makes him feel comfortable.”

“You see, that’s a conspiracy theory,” Budri said.

Wright exhaled: “I am not a conspiracy theorist!”

From left: Ghouri, Gambino, Budri and Wright smoke following their lunch together. (Ilana Panich-Linsman For The Washington Post)

The fries had gone cold. It had been three hours since the conversation started, and Wright had to stand up because he was so tired of sitting down. Budri said he was exhausted. Wright bought a fudge sundae, and Ghouri suggested he finish it in the parking lot, where they could have a cigarette. The four men smiled and chatted in the beating Texas sun. The conversation turned quickly to comparing guns and going boar hunting.

“I have respect for you,” Budri said to Wright and Gambino. “It seems you don’t just want to be a propagandist."

“You have a lot of philosophical integrity,” Gambino told them. “I’ve learned a lot.”

Ghouri wondered aloud whether they would ever agree on anything other than cigarettes and guns and a love of Texas.

Then Wright said something that surprised him: He was no longer planning to protest in front of Ghouri’s mosque, or any other.

“I cannot believe what I am hearing,” Ghouri said.

When BAIR started, Wright said, showing up with guns and forcing a controversy was innovative. Now those actions had been taken up by so many fringe groups — antifa, neo-Nazis, the KKK. Wright didn’t want to be associated with any of them.

But there was a group Wright felt proud to be part of. Wright abstained from voting in the election but appreciated the newfound fascination with working-class whites, the so-called Trump voters. In a fearful country, he found himself to be more than a man with a Facebook account, a passion and a gun. The self-described extremist now believed he could help save America through the power of government.

“It’s not like I’m Joe Blow anymore,” Wright said. “I have a name, and people would listen. The makeup of our government has changed. The presidency has changed.”

Ghouri wasn’t surprised by Wright’s feeling of empowerment; it was something he was begrudgingly coming to accept from those distrustful of his religion. Yet Ghouri felt Wright had become so dogmatic that it might not make sense to break bread with him again. They would never agree on who — or what — to fear in America.

He didn’t mention those thoughts to Wright. “I’m glad you don’t want to bring guns to the mosque anymore,” Ghouri said. In a suspicious country, the best he could hope for was that the extremists would stay away.

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