Recent reports show hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. have spiked to levels not seen since just after 9/11. This has led one Austin-area Muslim group to try and combat misconceptions about their religion. They’re holding a series of community conversations, inviting people to come and ask any questions they have about Islam.
On a Wednesday night, the second floor of Caffé Medici on Guadalupe Street is filled with students. But Nadia Ahmad isn’t here to study. She has set up shop at a table in the center of the room, with a sign that reads “Coffee, Cake and True Islam.”
“This session is giving [the] public the opportunity to come talk to us and get the feeling about what true Islam is, in hope to remove misconceptions about it, to educate them,” Ahmad says.
This event was put on by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, which is a sect of Islam. The group has been organizing meet-ups like this at coffee shops across the country. In Austin, it is holding weekly discussions near the University of Texas campus, as well as in Round Rock. Ahmad, who lives in Round Rock, said people have asked her similar questions at both locations.
“Some of their questions were very basic, you know about, ‘What is your concept of God?’ and ‘What is Ramadan?’” Ahmad says. “We were like, ‘Oh yeah, we can tell you all about that.’”
One table down, Ahmad’s husband, Muhammad Ahmad, is chatting with a new friend, Travis Morse, about how they both grew up in military families. Muhammad Ahmad and Morse met through a “Coffee, Cake and True Islam” event a few weeks ago. At the beginning, Morse asked Ahmad about Islam, but they soon found out they have much in common. Morse has been coming back to the events for the past few weeks.
“I grew up in a very conservative environment, so I grew up with a very, very negative view of Islam,” Morse says. “And I realized that I basically don’t actually know a whole lot about it outside of kind of what I grew up with in that little bubble.”
Morse says he no longer holds those negative views.
“I came back last week as well and talked a little bit more about history and learned a lot more about where Islam came from and the different denominations,” he says. “I’ve just been learning a lot.”
The Ahmadiyya Muslim community has been doing community outreach for years, but it felt the need to do more in recent months. After President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which temporarily barred visitors from several Muslim-majority countries, many American Muslims have felt anxious about increased Islamophobia.
Another attendee, Adbul Malmi, says he recently stood outside the Texas Capitol, holding a cardboard sign that said, “I’m a Muslim. Ask me anything.”
“There were a lot of different questions,” he says, “but something that stood out was some kids would come up to me and say, ‘Do you speak Islam?’ and ‘How do you say goat in Arabic?’”
Whether the conversations are silly or serious, Muhammad Ahmad says, this outreach is crucial.
“We all believe that the long-lasting change can only come from a one-on-one conversation where people get to know you better, and I think this is just one of our efforts to kind of give people a platform to kind of come and talk about anything that is on their mind about Islam or Muslims,” he says.
That one-on-one conversation created a bit of a breakthrough for Touba Khurshid, who lives in Pflugerville and attends a mosque in Round Rock. A few weeks ago, one of her neighbors collected dozens of handmade cards and letters that residents had written to members of the mosque. Khurshid says her neighbor thought about dropping the cards off on the mosque’s doorstep, but she decided to break the ice and deliver them in person.
“She was saying, ‘I was just thinking -- why don’t I just go with the kids myself and join you guys for a meal or something and talk to you guys and give it to you guys?’” Khurshid says. “So that felt very personal, you know? Just [taking] that extra step.”
The Coffee, Cake and True Islam event takes place again this Wednesday evening at 7:30. Groups will be meeting at Caffe Medici and the Corner Bakery Cafe in Round Rock.