After Rash Of Vandalism, Austin's Muslim Community Tries To Balance Safety With Openness
In the weeks after a series of vandalisms at the North Austin Muslim Community Center, Imam Islam Mossaad says prayer services have continued as usual, but the mosque has stepped up security.
Around 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 2, someone slashed the tires on a vehicle in the mosque's parking lot. The building's front doors and windows were also shattered.
“It was troubling," Mossaad says, "but we thought, ‘This is just a one-time incident, just a random incident, and we can move on.'"
But less than two weeks later, two of the mosque’s own vehicles had their tires slashed and a building window was cracked in what police say looked like an attempted entry.
Four days after that, the glass front doors of the New Madina Market, a Muslim-owned grocery store down the street, were smashed. Austin police have identified a person of interest from the store’s surveillance video. They say the person appears to be the same suspect shown on the mosque’s surveillance footage.
“This person is very brazen, very deliberate in targeting the Muslim community,” Mossaad says.
"There are large numbers of Muslims who would rather be unnoticed as opposed to rocking the boat."
The mosque recently hired an armed security guard. The Austin Police Department has also increased patrols in the area. Mossaad says the mosque has dealt with hate speech and vandalism in the past, but never a series of attacks like this. These days, he’s trying to balance safety concerns with the community center's open-door policy. When your community is being targeted, he says, the tendency is to lay low.
“There are large numbers of Muslims who would rather be unnoticed as opposed to rocking the boat,” Mossaad says. “We want to let the new generation of Muslims that grew up in America, that were born and raised in America, to bring that American outspokenness to our community and to represent the community positively.”
The North Austin Muslim Community Center has been around since the '90s. On any given week, about 2,000 people attend Friday prayer service. Yisa Sulaiman comes to the mosque almost every day for evening prayers. He says he was shocked to hear about the attacks, but that the experience has brought him closer to the congregation.
Sulaiman says he feels stronger about coming to the mosque to worship. “People can even attack you [going] down the street," he says. "This is a place of worship, so I feel safe coming here.”
The mosque recently hosted a safety workshop with the Austin Police Department and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“We started to realize that, look, irrespective of what the potential motivations may be, bias or otherwise, people are starting to get concerned,” says Maira Sheikh, executive director of the Austin chapter of CAIR.
She says she hopes these trainings will make the Muslim community more comfortable talking to police. A recent CAIR report showed a 17 percent increase in reports of incidents of bias against Muslims nationwide between 2016 and 2017, and a 15 percent increase in hate crime reports.
“I think a lot of times, especially in immigrant communities, people are a little bit afraid to approach the police department,” Sheikh says. “So just even having the face to face and understanding where they could call, or who they call, was a little bit different.”
Possible Hate Crimes
Just down North Lamar, Hussain Syed stands behind a counter at the New Madina Market, ringing up a steady stream of customers. Thick black strips of duct tape patch up the front doors' windows. The glass was smashed at around 2 a.m. on Sept. 17.
“I came, I immediately checked the video,” Syed says, “and we find that some guy was walking in front of our store, and then he break the [glass].”
Three days later, the store was vandalized again. Surveillance footage shows someone breaking the windows with a hammer. Syed says the store has been hesitant to fix the doors since the second attack.
“We [were] worried maybe he will come again and break it. And now you can see, we have fixed a shutter outside," he says, pointing to a barred metal gate in front of the doors.
“So now in the night when we go, we lock our door and then we close the shutter, and we have spent a lot of money,” he says.
The Austin Police Department is investigating the series of vandalisms at both the market and the mosque as possible hate crimes. Syed says the market staff will continue to be vigilant and that he hopes police make an arrest soon.
“We trust our Allah,” Syed says, “and we have to do our safety.”
About 20 miles west of the North Austin Muslim Community Center, another mosque has opened its doors after a major setback. The Islamic Center of Lake Travis sits along a winding two-lane road. Just hours before the Friday prayer service, the main hall is quiet and serene. A chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and sunlight streams in through the windows.
Board member Shakeel Rashed says the mosque has invested in new security systems after a fire burned it to the ground in 2017. The mosque was still under construction when the fire broke out. Authorities have not determined an official cause yet.
Rashed says it took months of fundraising and rebuilding before the mosque could finally open for services this past May.
It's difficult to prevent someone with hateful intentions from damaging a mosque, Rashed says, but tightening security is the smart thing to do.
“If we look at that incident – yes, it was really horrible, but it also brought our community together and it exposed our community to a lot of other communities around here,” Rashed says. “I shouldn’t call it a blessing, but we basically reacted in the way that we could use whatever happened to a positive end.”