From Kaufman County to New York City, the mayor of Irving keeps telling crowds she’s no hero.
“People talk about, ‘Oh you’re so brave,’” Beth Van Duyne said in a flag-lined church near Forney, while the sheriff and 10 armed officers stood guard in the parking lot. “There is nothing I did that was heroic.”
Van Duyne’s popularity has soared outside her city since February, when she seized on a chain letter rumor that a Muslim court had imposed Shariah law in Irving — hitherto known for the Dallas Cowboys, Las Colinas and the downtown soda fountain.
The rumor was false, but it’s vaulted Van Duyne into a speaking tour about Muslims, a biased media and what she called an effort to destroy the country “from within.”
“I’ve been told I’m the hero of some freaky fringe group that thinks Islam is trying to take over our court system, emulate it and duplicate it throughout the country,” the mayor said to hundreds in North Richland Hills earlier this month.
While they don’t always square with the facts, the mayor’s modest stories have had a powerful effect. Besides hero, her fans now call her a servant of God, a defender of women and one of the most exciting politicians to shoot out of the North Texas suburbs.
“That girl is quality,” gushed Ray Myers, who chairs the Kaufman County Tea Party. “All she’s got to do is get her name out there and decide which position she wants to run for, and good people who care about this country will resonate.”
Myers said his website traffic doubled after he advertised Van Duyne’s speech to his group, billed as “the inside story” of how Muslims, reporters and Democrats were protecting an illegal Sharia court. He worried, he said, when he found out the Web traffic was coming “from places where there are mosques.”
Two Muslims tried to attack a contest to mock their religion in nearby Garland the month before, so Myers called the sheriff’s office. By the time Van Duyne pulled off the interstate on June 16, a row of American flags and nearly a dozen officers stood in front of the Trinity Family Church.
“I did not realize I was such a divisive or controversial speaker until I started getting calls about body guards,” the mayor said inside.
Myers watched in admiration. As chairman of one of the most active tea party groups in his area, he believed he knew the recipe for a winning candidate. His first rule was “attack the media.” Van Duyne would ace it that night.
“If you count the number of times they say I have attacked Muslims, it would shock you,” she said. “And yet what happened in Garland was not defined as that.”
After a decade of council meetings hardly anyone watched, Van Duyne’s name went national this spring when blog reports spread that the first Muslim court in the U.S. had set up shop in Irving.
In reality, a Dallas-based religious group was offering to mediate disputes: unusual only because they were Muslim imams instead of Catholics or Jews. But before she spoke to anyone involved with the group, Van Duyne said it was “bypassing Texas courts, bypassing American courts.”
Crowds packed City Hall to watch Van Duyne push through a narrow vote to back a state bill called “American Laws for American Courts,” a national movement that seeks to shield courts from Shariah. With scant evidence that the U.S. Constitution didn’t already do that, the vote was blasted in editorials as far away as Waco.
“I would never in a million years have expected the negative reaction I got,” Van Duyne told the crowd at the church, before reading her first Facebook post on the topic. Cheers filled the church as she recited her old lines: “If it is determined there are violations of basic rights occurring, I will not stand idle and will fight with every fiber of my being.”
“This is what started the ‘I’m a hateful, bigoted, racist Islamophobe,’” she explained afterward.
Van Duyne left out some details. Like when she incorrectly told former Fox News host Glenn Beck that the Islamic mediation service was a “separate court” creating new laws.
Or the wildly inaccurate blog posts she shared on her Facebook page:“Muslims Demand Texas Mayor Surrender After She Attacked Shariah Court.”
She added other details. The mayor told the audience about phoning Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow, after he compared the American Laws vote to “a resolution saying the gravity on other planets shall not apply in Irving.”
Blow recalled “a very cordial conversation.” The mayor told him family law attorneys in her area had asked her to support the bill. Skeptical that Shariah law could interfere with an American divorce, Blow offered to write another column if Van Duyne put him in touch.
“He said, ‘I’m going to wait for a family lawyer to call me,’” Van Duyne said. “So I made a couple calls. He never called them back. Because they don’t want to know about this.”
The crowd murmured, but Blow said no family lawyers had actually called him. Instead, a constitutional lawyer who runs a free enterprise group in Austin left him a voice mail at the mayor’s behest. Blow said he ignored it.
No one questioned Van Duyne’s stories inside the church, though they asked plenty afterward.
“Will it ever be feasible for the imams and all to ever put Shariah law on an American-born woman like me?” Gayle Kinnart asked.
Kinnart didn’t entirely understand the mayor’s answer, which meandered through a story about how she’d been forbidden to take a Bible to Saudi Arabia.
“We have a civilized society that the rest of the world tries to emulate and wants to come to, and at the same time tries to destroy. And what we’re seeing is they destroy from within,” the mayor said.
Before she left that night, the tea party pastor thanked God for Jesus, the guards outside and Beth Van Duyne.
A week later, Van Duyne was in New York at the invitation of the Center for Security Policy, an advocacy group whose leader has suggested that President Barack Obama might secretly be a Muslim.
A picture of a tattered U.S. flag, embroidered with the dates of al-Qaeda attacks, is on display in Van Duyne’s office at the top of City Hall. Warm wishes have poured to the mayor since the Shariah court rumor went viral.
Now another rumor runs through City Hall: that Van Duyne will soon seek a higher office — Austin, if not Washington.
“She will never have a better opportunity to become a United States congressperson than on March 1 of 2016,” mused council member John Danish. Another colleague, David Palmer, said he once asked the mayor if she planned to challenge her U.S. House member in the Republican primary.
“I am not running against Kenny Marchant,” Van Duyne said last week. But asked if she might run for the state legislature, the mayor avoided the question.
A state run wouldn’t surprise Jonathan Neerman, who said Van Duyne discussed one with him when he chaired the Dallas County GOP several years ago. But even with her growing popularity, he doubted she could or would take on a big-league Republican.
“Beth is not an outsider to the Republican Party, so for her to run against an incumbent … would mean she’d need to look for support in places she hasn’t naturally had support before,” he said.
“I think she’d have to go to the tea party circuit.”
Each month the NE Tarrant Tea Party fills out a corner of the North Richland Hills enormous civic center. At the June meeting, a woman spotted a worker in a head scarf.
The city later complained that the woman confronted the Muslim employee in a bathroom and told her “hateful things.” The tea party president apologized for her guest’s behavior, but later wrote to the group: “We need her there. How many others tried to witness to that lost soul?”
When Van Duyne came to tell her story a month later, at least 300 sat in the auditorium.
“This is in your state, in your neighborhood, right down the street,” the mayor said. “It is far too late for us to pretend there aren’t people there who’d prefer to do things their own way and not follow our laws.”
The crowd “mm hmm”ed in the rhythm of amens as the mayor ran through her grievances — some of which had grown since her last retelling.
Blow had not only ignored calls from two family lawyers, Van Duyne told the crowd, but “went ballistic” on the phone.
She said the Twitter feed of an Irving imam — a critic of Israeli policy and friend of two rabbis, who often praises Jews — was full of “very strong anti-Semitic comments.”
After she left the podium, an organizer changed the subject: “Who’s thinking about the next Republican primary already?”
From her front-row seat, Van Duyne’s hand shot up immediately.