A fund-raiser to build a center dedicated to teaching Muslims how to combat negative depictions of their faith drew crowds of protesters Saturday in Garland.
Some who picketed the event said Islamic beliefs pose a threat to the American way of life. Counter-protesters also attended, urging understanding and cooperation.
The $20-a-ticket Stand With the Prophet in Honor and Respect conference was promoted by Sound Vision Foundation. The organization has said hate groups use the actions of international extremists such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram to turn public opinion against all Muslims.
"We are kind, peaceful people," a Muslim woman at the conference said. "We're not here to fight; we're not here to argue. We're just here to show that we're Americans, too."
Imam Siraj Wahhaj, the leader of the Muslim Alliance in North America, was the keynote speaker for the event. Critics say he advocates the overthrow of the United States and the imposition of Sharia law.
Because of safety concerns, the conference's organizers increased security at the Curtis Culwell Center near North Star Road and the President George Bush Turnpike.
Abdul Malik Mujahid, the president of Sound Vision Foundation, said hundreds of hateful messages had been posted online about the conference.
He said threats of violence had been shared with law-enforcement personnel.
"It is extremely important for the Muslim community to connect with our message," he said. "We cannot allow terrorists to run away with the merciful personality of Prophet Muhammad, that they are standing on his name. No. We Muslims in the world, 1.7 billion people, we don't agree with that. ... At the same time, we're wondering whether there are good neighbors in America who will stand up with people of other faiths for their right to practice their faith."
One of the speakers at the conference, Georgetown University religion professor John Espositio, said the event was part of a series nationwide to discuss terrorism, hate speech and anti-Islam fears.
"I go to Muslim countries, and I speak all over the United States," he said. "What's interesting to me is that this is the first time that I've been in a situation that I'm come to speak and I've seen this level of hate."
The Garland school district faced criticism for allowing its convention center to be used for the event, which came a little more than a week after Islamic militants killed 12 people at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Former Garland City Attorney Charles Hinton was among those criticizing the school district for booking the conference.
But school board President Rick Lambert said that because the convention center is a public facility, the district cannot discriminate based on viewpoints.
"The Culwell Center is available for rental as long as you comply with the law," he said.