Democratic Attorney General Mark R. Herring attended a town hall meeting at a Northern Virginia mosque on Friday to reassure Muslims he would protect their rights in the face of President Donald Trump’s attempt to stop travel temporarily from certain nations.
Herring has met with Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Latinos and Hindus in recent months to talk about civil rights.
But Friday’s meeting at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center near Falls Church drew special attention from the Republican Party of Virginia, which on Monday sent an email about the mosque’s past ties to terrorists. The subject line: “BREAKING: Mark Herring’s Terrorist Connection.”
The mosque once was headed by Anwar al-Awlaki, who became an al-Qaida radical and was killed in a drone strike in 2011 authorized by President Barack Obama. His death generated controversy because he was a U.S. citizen killed without a trial.
Fort Hood, Texas, shooter Nidal Hasan also once worshiped at the mosque.
The GOP email said Herring held a political event “at the mosque where multiple 9/11 hijackers worshiped and where Anwar al-Awlaki was the head imam.”
“It is truly disgusting that Mark Herring would attend a mosque at the nexus of Islamic terrorism and, even worse, that it was held to oppose policy designed to prevent future terrorist attacks,” the email said.
The email encouraged Republicans to call Herring’s office to demand that he “apologize to the victims of Islamic terrorism.”
A Republican Party website included a photo of Herring near a picture of al-Awlaki holding a rocket launcher.
The Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution commending the mosque in 2014, and numerous government officials have made visits there.
Former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican from Northern Virginia, spoke at an event at a hotel in 2013 when the Islamic center celebrated its 30th anniversary.
Colin Christopher, deputy director for government affairs at the Islamic center, called the rhetoric from the Republican Party unfortunate and extreme, and he said it mirrored the national party’s current path.
“This is a hollow statement from the Virginia Republican Party,” he said. “We’re one of the most influential and well-liked faith institutions in Northern Virginia.”
The town hall program on Friday consisted of a civil rights update from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a citizenship application clinic, and an update from Herring, Christopher said.
Additionally, a senior FBI official, Paul Abbate, visited the mosque two months ago to speak to about 3,000 congregants, he said.
The Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center recently has received threats by voicemail and mail, as have other mosques in the Washington region and nationally as anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiment builds in America.
John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
State GOP Executive Director John Findlay said in an email that the party “does not object to politicians visiting mosques, in fact our own chairman visited a Muslim house of worship quite recently. However, the party does object to Mark Herring holding an event at a center with an extensive and well-documented history with anti-American terrorists.”
The email was disconcerting to friends of the mosque.
“I’ve had a wonderful, wonderful relationship with them,” said Walter Ruby, the Washington-based Muslim-Jewish relations programs director with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. “It’s really not right to attack a mosque, a whole community, that’s doing wonderful work today.”
In a written statement, Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker said:
“I’ve been in Virginia politics for more than 30 years, and I have never seen such a disgraceful attack against a public servant and a group of his constituents. It saddens me beyond words to see Trump-style attacks brought to Virginia and used to attack our citizens, neighbors and friends.”
Herring is seeking re-election this year. Two Republicans — John Adams and Chuck Smith, both lawyers — are vying for the GOP nomination.
“I just really can’t get my head around why the RPV thought they should try to boost their numbers by accusing their fellow Virginians of being ‘terrorist sympathizers’ just for going to their place of worship,” Herring spokesman Michael Kelly said in an email.
“While Attorney General Herring is actively working to reassure Virginia Muslims and other minority communities that they are safe and welcome, the RPV is sending dangerous messages that only embolden those who want to harm or harass Muslims here in our communities.”
Herring has been at the forefront of challenging Trump’s actions relating to immigration and travel.
Virginia, represented by Herring’s office, asked for a preliminary injunction against Trump’s first travel ban from certain Muslim-majority countries. A federal judge in Alexandria granted the injunction in February, further crippling Trump’s plan after a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling enjoining enforcement.
The state of Hawaii this month was granted a request for a temporary restraining order of Trump’s second travel ban. Herring filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Virginia in that case.
A news release Friday from Herring’s office about the town hall at the mosque said he would be there to “express his continued support for the Muslim community and discuss his fight against President Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban.”
Trump said during the campaign that he wanted “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
But his initial travel ban faced a backlash after it led to people being detained in American airports and hindered travel by people with green cards and valid visas.