AUSTIN, Texas — Kay Zazy stepped out of her car into the pre-dawn chill to find firefighters inspecting the charred remains of the mosque.
A tall, elegant Afghan woman, she stood out among the all-male crew. It was 17 degrees, unseasonably cold for January in Texas, and the foam the team sprayed to extinguish the fire had frozen to the ground, crunching under Zazy’s feet.
“It had vanished, completely vanished,” Zazy said, remembering the fire several months later.
The Islamic Center of Lake Travis, a suburb northwest of Austin, was to open with graceful arched windows looking out onto the green Texas hills. After five years of work on the part of Zazy and 20 other families in the area, the community center was close to completion when it was burned to the ground on January 7.
“I took it as hard as when my parents passed away,” Zazy said. “It’s hard for me to explain it, but I could put it in that same category. It hurt as much.”
I took it as hard as when my parents passed away … It’s hard for me to explain it, but I could put it in that same category. It hurt as much.
Fire investigators say evidence about the cause of the fire was destroyed in the flames, and they likely will never be able to determine whether it was an arson. Another mosque in Vctoria, Texas also burned down less than three weeks later. That was ruled an arson. Months of anti-Muslim harassment followed around the country, the most recent being the bombing of a mosque in Minneapolis last Saturday.
The wave of Islamophobic violence directly followed President Donald Trump’s inauguration and has careened to the highest levels since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to reports from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy group which tracks hate groups around the country. Trump has yet to respond to the escalation, including the Minneapolis bombing.
Hate crimes have been reported even in “liberal” cities like Austin, which had been considered an oasis of tolerance by its 15,000 Muslim residents. A series of attacks on young Muslim women, including one in which a student on her bike was almost run off the road, has left the local community on edge. Zazy and the other families working to build the mosque have deep roots in the Austin-area and feel this is their home. But some worry that anti-Muslim rhetoric from the highest levels of the government will continue to escalate the violence against them.
After the fire, Zazy became something of a representative for the Muslim community of Lake Travis, and it is hard to imagine a better ambassador. Almost six feet tall in heels, she is warm and indomitably positive. She says that her husband has always told her she has Texan blood.
“You were just born on the wrong side of the world,” he jokes.
And indeed she was—especially in today’s political climate. Both Zazy, 44, and her husband are from Afghanistan. Her husband came to the U.S. as a refugee in the ’80s, and she followed after they got married in 1995. Zazy said she feels at home with her more conservative Texan friends because of their faith.
“As I think a lot of people with a relationship with a higher power can relate, life without God is colorless,” Zazy said.
It’s just that she is Muslim and most of her friends are Christian. She said other than that, she actually thinks very similarly to political conservatives. She understands why people would want restrictions on immigration, but thinks the precautions should be directed at everyone, not just Muslims.
“My daughter told me, ‘Gosh you’re like a 50-year-old white male in your thinking,” Zazy said, laughing. But her comfort with the conservative mindset means she is quick to understand the motivations behind the questions people ask her about Islam. Watching her in action at a recent Rotary Club meeting in Austin, she is impressive. After she tells the story of the fire, an audience member asks her if the Islamic Center subscribed to a particular kind of Islam. She immediately picks up on the implication of his question — that her mosque might have backing from terrorist groups abroad.
“No, we don’t receive funding from any outside groups,” she tells him. “All of the money for the center was raised locally.”
When asked about it later, Zazy just laughed again.
“Most of my friends are conservative so I know what kinds of questions they’re going to ask,” she said. Although she was devastated by the fire, she feels like it was a message from God to reach out to the local community. She has now made it her mission to educate five people a week on Islam. She says she doesn’t want to impose her religion on others, but just to let them know who she is.
“I know some people will tell me I’m wrong,” she said. “I think God is up there, but I think we’re all climbing up with different ladder. We could be Muslim, Christian, Catholic, Buddhist. We’re praying to the same higher power.”
A Space of their Own
The idea to build a mosque in the first place was inspired by a wildfire that swept through Zazy’s neighborhood six years ago, destroying more than two dozen houses.
“When a residential home gets burned down, you see crockery lying around, you see all these things that you give so much importance to lying burned on the ground … It’s very sad,” said Shakeel Rashed. Originally from India, he has lived in the area with his family for over 20 years.
Rashed’s family joined with other Muslims in the area to raise $2,700 to help their neighbors rebuild their homes after the fire. He said it was the first time he realized there were other Muslim families in the Steiner Ranch planned community. Many of them, like Rashed, work in the tech industry in Austin. The neighborhood had diversified almost overnight, growing to nearly 100 Muslim families over a period of a few years.
Despite the growing community, being involved in religious life was difficult. To attend weekly prayers, they would drive 40 minutes through Austin traffic to the nearest mosque.
“I would take my kids to Sunday school and it would take me a half day to get them there,” Zazy said.
After the wildfire, some of the families began meeting informally in their neighborhood. This was especially important during Ramadan, when they had been fasting all day and didn’t want to fight traffic to eat iftar (the first meal of the day during the holy month). A nearby middle school allowed them to meet there in the evenings to celebrate together.
“It brought the community together so much, you have no idea,” Zazy said.
She remembers long summer evenings sitting outside the school eating and chatting while her kids played basketball. The families discovered that they were a group of like-minded people — progressive Muslims whose faith was important to them but who were also deeply rooted in Austin.
It was during those summer evenings that the families started thinking about building their own space. It was not just about having a place to pray, it was about having a sense of community. Their kids could hang out together and they could have weekly meals together. Over the next five years, they began to pool money and hold fundraisers.
“We are not rich people,” she said. “We’re working people. There was no outsider money. That was our vacation money.”
They were able to raise about $800,000 to purchase a plot of land and construct the center. But the formal establishment of the mosque didn’t sit well with everyone.
“There are a lot of old-schoolers in the neighborhood, and they’re pretty racist,” said William Jackson who works in a convenience store in Hudson Bend, down the street from where the mosque used to be. “They’re seeing things change and they don’t like it.”
“People are very afraid”
A group of regulars, who called themselves “lake rats,” gathered at the Hudson Tavern on a Monday afternoons. Now retired, they spent their lives on the water, working in various tourism businesses around the lake. They are nostalgic for the unkempt character of the neighborhoods around Lake Travis, a place where the neighbors wouldn’t complain about unmowed grass or old cars in the yard.
The relaxed character of the neighborhood has started to change. Next to the site of the burned down Islamic Center, there is a brand new development of large ranch homes, all modern angles and pristine lawns. But a little further down the street there are three mobile home parks where the residents still proudly display Trump posters and a tattered Confederate flag flaps in the breeze.
“It’s a very interesting area,” said Dan Berger, the Lake Travis deputy fire marshal.
David DePrato, the owner of Five-Star Marine, was more blunt.
“There are some rednecks out here,” he said. When told that the fire had yet to be ruled an arson, he shook his head noting that it had been vandalized before the fire, as had a number of other businesses in the area run by minorities. DePrato was visibly upset by the fire, saying it was “spiteful and mean.” But others in the neighborhood felt differently.
“They were not wanted,” said Jerry Gay, the manager of the Sunset RV Resort. “If you look at the bad things that have gone on in the past 20 years, it seems [Muslims] are always behind it,” he added.
The Islamic Center has left up Facebook comments on its page from the day of the fire. Amid dozens of messages of support, some commenters left anti-Islam messages. A user calling himself Patrick Henry wrote, “Quit burning [mosques] down to try to collect the insurance, and make Christians look bad.” A user calling himself Gene Landram followed up with, “Need to have a pork roast and pass out the matches.”
Despite these rumblings, investigators have been unable to pinpoint any credible threats from the neighborhood. And investigators are holding onto the possibility that the fire was an accident. But the timing of the fire is suspicious as anti-Muslim sentiment has reached an all-time high around the country.
“People are very afraid. I tell them to be patient, that all the prophets have gone through persecution,”said Umer Esmail, the imam at the Nueces Mosque near the University of Texas in Austin where many members of the Lake Travis Muslim community are now attending prayers. “We find solace in the fact that we’re not the only ones. I tell them to demonstrate good morals and be a positive example. We’re taking it a day at a time.”
Esmail said several of the members of his mosque, all young women who wear the hijab, have reported incidents of harassment. Esmail says one young woman was almost hit by a car while on her bicycle. The driver swerved towards her and then drove off laughing. Another woman says she was walking to class, when a group of young men yelled that this is a Muslim-free zone and followed her.
We’ve never seen a rash of mosque burnings like this … I’ve been at this for 20 years and we haven’t seen anything like this in the past.
In the third incident, a young black woman posted on Facebook that she was walking from the University of Texas campus to the Nueces Mosque a few blocks away when a group of men surrounded her and yelled, “Niggers and Muslims will be out soon.” She said she feared for her life.
“After the success of the Civil Rights movement, we were made to believe that [racists] were a small minority, but it’s not a small minority … We’re seeing a resurgence of the pre-Civil Rights era. People want to go back,” Esmail said.
One of the most popular neo-Nazi blogs in the country, the Daily Stormer, put out a call to its readers to harass Muslims using almost identical language to the incidents in Austin, says Stephen Piggot of the Southern Poverty Law Center. There is no way to know if the incidents are connected to the message on the blog, but Piggot is concerned that Islamophobia is becoming more mainstream.
“It’s not just extreme right neo-Nazis,” Piggot said. “Radical right anti-Muslim sentiment is the flavor of the week.”
The FBI is helping with the investigation into the Lake Travis mosque fire and it has found no connection with national anti-Muslim groups. But the continuing attacks have everyone nervous.
“We’ve never seen a rash of mosque burnings like this,” said Mark Potok, formerly a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “I’ve been at this for 20 years and we haven’t seen anything like this in the past,” he said, referring to the overall surge in reported hate crimes across the country.
The breeze is warm and the birds are singing on a March afternoon in Texas when Shakeel Rashed, the Lake Travis resident, takes me out to the site where the mosque used to be. The spring day softens the impact of the pile of rubble in front of us. We peer through the chain link fence at the pile of black ash and blackened beams. Tied to the fence are dozens of pink and red foil hearts and Valentine’s cards, a token of support from a local interfaith group. The hearts shimmer and flash in the sun as they’re caught by the spring breeze.
The community is determined to rebuild. Despite their fears, they are committed to restarting their project. Dan Berger, the deputy fire marshal, has suggested they take safety precautions and install cameras and other surveillance equipment. But he can’t give the community many guarantees.
For now, Lake Travis’s Muslim community believes the best defense is outreach. If they can get out in their community and connect their faces to the word Muslim, they hope they can make a space for themselves in Texas.
Speaking at a recent Rotary Club meeting in Austin, Zazy told the audience that she hoped that when they heard the word Muslim, they would think of her and Rashed.
“If you know us, you will love us,” she said.