Mosque arson anniversary brings questions of faith, unity

Jon Wilcox By Jon Wilcox

By BY JON WILCOX JWILCOX@VICAD.COM
Jan. 27, 2018 at 9:27 p.m.
Updated Jan. 29, 2018 at 6 a.m.

Davila Paving subcontractors pour 180 cubic yards of concrete for the foundation of the new Victoria Islamic Center.

Davila Paving subcontractors pour 180 cubic yards of concrete for the foundation of the new Victoria Islamic Center.   Angela Piazza for The Victoria Advocate

As the flames of arson illuminated their tears, members of the Victoria Islamic Center paced the sidewalk surrounding their burning mosque and prayed for understanding.

"I was shaken," Abe Ajrami, a Victoria resident and mosque member, said, recalling the night of Jan. 28, 2017.

For center president Dr. Shahid Hashmi, a Victoria surgeon, the building's destruction was akin to losing a patient - an experience he still struggles with after decades of practice.

"Why is there hate? Why is there all this? And why would (someone) do something like that?" Hashmi said. "Then you sit there and think about it, and then your faith tells you, 'It's a test.'"

• For more stories, go to our ongoing coverage of the Mosque.

Like the spiritual understanding they prayed for that night, the understanding between Victoria residents of differing faiths and cultural backgrounds can offer relief to misunderstanding, prejudice and even violence, Ajrami and Hashmi said. While both members agreed the Victoria community passed its test by demonstrating an overwhelming outpouring of support in the hours after the fire, much can still be done to better relations between community members of all backgrounds, they said.

From Lebanon to Victoria

When Victoria resident Omar Rachid arrived in Victoria, he brought the words of his father and mother with him.

"My dad used to say, 'You will never know what people are made of until you test them,'" Rachid said one afternoon in early January at his downtown office, a room studded with civic awards and honors. In 2013, he attempted a run for the Victoria mayor's office.

His father, once an owner of orange groves and olive orchards, was reserved and full of wisdom, Rachid said. His mother was filled with life and compassion.

But Rachid's family faced trials of their own during his youth in Tripoli, Lebanon. Civil war, pervasive violence and scarcity of food, water and other essentials marked that time, he said.

"It was a horrific time," he said.

During those trials, Rachid's parents reinforced in him the importance of helping those in need - no matter their religion.

"My dad believed if you drink from a well, you ought to take care of the well," he said.

At his parents' orders and sometimes despite his own resentment, Rachid cared for the metaphorical well. He routinely escorted a blind neighbor across the street. He checked on a widow's welfare. And he stood in lines for hours to buy bread and water - often for neighbors who could not.

Now, Rachid sees community service as not only a pleasure and religious responsibility but also a way of bringing Victoria together.

"Be kind to one another - that is the most significant teaching of Islam," he said.

Opening doors

May 20, 2000, the day of the mosque's grand opening, was one of celebration.

Members invited international folk singer Cat Stevens and basketball superstar Hakeem Olajuwon to help debut the then-newly constructed building, attracting hundreds of community members with the promise of celebrity and autographs.

In the years that followed, the mosque served as a place to welcome and educate community members outside Islam, Ajrami said. It welcomed curious visitors with questions. It served as a meeting place for one of the first meetings of Communities of Faith, a Victoria group dedicated to connecting those of different religions.

Before the arson, members had planned to use another building on the property as a free medical clinic for those who couldn't afford treatment, Ajrami said. Those plans were put on hold after the fire.

The mosque also served as a spiritual home for Muslims living in Victoria.

For almost a decade before its construction, families had met regularly at a home on Sam Houston Drive for daily prayers and other occasions, but with the number of members increasing steadily, the house had become crowded by the late '90s, Hashmi said.

As president, he found himself heavily involved with construction, talking regularly with contractors and sometimes spending weekends planting flowers.

But the joy of those responsibilities crumbled to grief as he watched the building burn one year ago today.

"It's like your own child," he said.

Fear of the unknown

Federal prosecutors have stayed mainly silent since their March arrest of Victoria resident Marq Vincent Perez, 26, who is charged with a federal hate crime and suspected of setting fire to the mosque.

At a hearing last year, investigators testified to finding Facebook communications that showed Perez felt prejudice against Muslims and even thought they could be stockpiling weapons. Authorities also testified an informant said Perez thought Islam allowed the marriage of children and that members of the Victoria mosque could be working with the terrorist group ISIS.

The arson came a day after President Donald Trump announced a travel ban for seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Perez's attorney, Mark Di Carlo, of Corpus Christi, said his client has rejected prosecutors' proposals for a plea deal and is prepared to go to trial, which could begin in early April.

While Perez's mind remains a mystery to the public, mosque members said the arson left them with fear and paranoia.

"I have taken different routes from work and back home just so I could be extra cautious," Rachid said.

Being honest

Even more than 9/11, the presidential election of 2016 had a disastrous effect on how American Muslims are perceived, said Habiba Noor, adjunct professor at Trinity University in San Antonio.

"This election has kind of been the tipping point," she said.

In summer 2017, Noor and other social sciences researchers interviewed more than 170 Texans from myriad backgrounds about their thoughts about Muslims. Then, dramatists at the university turned the interviews into a play.

"To Be Honest" features a variety of voices speaking unflinchingly about their fears, prejudices, hopes and realizations. An Iraqi War veteran recounts his experience standing guard over an Iraqi baker accused of setting a car bomb only to find they had more in common than he thought.

Like the veteran, the play's other characters recite monologues taken verbatim from interviews with real people.

After the curtain fell at performances in San Antonio, the play's creators invited audience members to participate in discussions about how Muslims are viewed in America, said Stacey Connelly, a Trinity theater professor who directed the play.

She thought the discussions opened participants to explore the relationships between religion and community in ways they never had before.

"Theater is so good at humanizing a problem," she said, adding, "As soon as you put anything onstage, you are interrogating it, and that requires you to look at it critically."

Since 9/11, Noor said, the discussion among some conservative circles has moved from 'Are some Muslims bad?' to 'Is Islam a bad religion?'"

"We lost our ability to be invisible," said Noor, who is Muslim.

Rachid agreed, remembering a time when his religion and heritage were cool to non-Muslims rather than threatening.

"There was this message that Muslims are not your friends, that we are going to have restrictions on Muslims, that we are going to have IDs for Muslims," Rachid said. "All that culminated in the arson."

Shifting the lines of discussion, Noor said, has created an unspoken requirement for Muslims to defend themselves and condemn extremists, she said. And explicit support or mere silent acceptance for such rhetoric by state and local leaders in Texas has made racist rhetoric more acceptable, Noor said.

"There is something demoralizing about explaining you are human," she said.

'I will not submit'

Victoria County resident Kenneth Schustereit, 62, who attends a Victoria Pentecostal church, sometimes wears a badge reading "I will not submit" in English and Arabic.

"I'm not a great fan of Islam, but I love Muslims," said Schustereit, who added the badge sometimes attracts looks.

Time after time, Schustereit has trusted Hashmi with his life for surgeries that include the removal of an ulcer and gallstones as well as the replacement of torn medical gauze in his abdomen. The torn gauze, he said, caused him excruciating pain.

"He exudes confidence, caring and compassion," Schustereit said. "All you got to do is look at him and hear him talk."

And further interactions with other Muslim neighbors, including a co-worker at a plant and previous surgeon, have cemented his feelings of acceptance for those who follow the religion, he said.

While Schustereit said he loves and respects his Muslim neighbors, he also believes parts of the Quran command followers to violence. Those commands, he said, are upheld by violent extremists and not members of his community.

"I'm a Christian. I'm not going to submit to someone else's religion," he said.

More same than different

The word "Islam" is rooted in the idea of submission - to Allah.

"The term 'Islam' is derived from 'peace,' but the most powerful definition is 'submission,'" Ajrami said about an hour after completing a midday prayer at the Islamic center's remaining intact building.

While the word "Allah" has come to be recognized by some as the God of Muslims, that understanding is flawed, Ajrami said.

"'Allah' is the Arabic word for 'God,' so if you are a Christian who was born in Egypt or Bethlehem or Nazareth, you are going to say 'Allah,'" Ajrami said.

The similarities between Christians, Jews, Muslims and other faiths extend far beyond semantics, he said.

"We believe in Jesus. We believe in the Messiah," he said.

Muslims also believe in a divine creator and the importance of expressing humility for its creations, a mentality expressed in part through the act of kneeling during daily prayers, Hashmi said.

"Human beings, they walk around thinking they are the toughest and the greatest," Hashmi said. "The most humility is when your face and nose are touching the dirt, when you are realizing you are a nobody."

Saving lives as a surgeon, Hashmi said, requires a recognition for the greatness of God.

"When in surgery, I see things that are so minute, that are so hidden in the human body," he said, acknowledging the complexity of hormonal glands and the circulatory system. "God put these things here just to make me humble because if I'm not careful, I can do damage to that person."

While mosque members do agree there are some key differences between faiths, such as a lack of an intercessor in Islam, those differences should be celebrated.

"We are people, after all," he said. "Whether I'm an atheist or a Christian or a Hindu ... I don't see what's wrong with blurring the lines between faiths."

Blurring the lines

Days after the mosque's arson and an interfaith prayer rally, the pastor of Parkway Church published a blog titled 'Blurred Lines, Confusing Prayers.'

"When it comes to those who practice Islam, they aren't our enemies, but they also aren't our spiritual friends," Pastor Mike Hurt wrote Feb. 1, 2017.

While Hurt said he has only love and understanding for his Muslim neighbors, he cannot accept the idea that the faiths worship the same God.

"I am convinced that Jesus is more than a good guy or a good teacher. He is God," Hurt said. "Simply acknowledging the historical Jesus doesn't make our faiths the same. To Christians, Jesus is more than just a person in history. He is God in human flesh who gave His life for us."

Those differences, he said, prevent him from supporting the participation of Christians in Communities of Faith and charities with religions that do not share key beliefs about Jesus.

"There are certain things we can do together as citizens of the same country and same community, but that doesn't mean we link together in worship," he said.

Hurt said he still stands by the blog post.

But for the Rev. Bill Hassel, a founding member of Communities of Faith, that reasoning is flawed. He pointed to Biblical passages such as Luke 23:43, in which Jesus turns to a criminal hanging and suffering beside him on an adjacent cross.

"Jesus answered him, 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise,'" Hassel said. "That man didn't confess Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior, nor was he baptized, and he didn't belong to Parkway either."


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