Mosques have been vandalised and worshippers abused amid a spate of anti-Muslim incidents in southern state.
For most of the three-hour event, everything appeared to have gone smoothly when attendees gathered for a Ramadan meal on May 25 in Bastrop, Texas.
The Muslim Space, an Austin-based initiative, had organised the iftar, or meal breaking their daily fast during Ramadan, to bring together Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbours in the area.
But as Muslim Space executive director Shadia Igram said her goodbyes and prepared to leave, she spotted one of the event signs on the ground with obscene comments scrawled in black marker across its face.
“F**k you,” someone had written above “Muslim Space” on the sign, along with “bomb space” and other derogatory anti-Muslim phrases.
Igram said it wasn’t the first act of vandalism that has targeted local Muslims in the community.
“Any act of hate where Muslims are targeted is always going to cause fear,” she told TRT World.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s in Bastrop or anywhere in the world – we are always going to be prepared for the worst.”
The Austin chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights organisation, has called on local authorities to treat the incident as a hate crime.
“It is disturbing to consider that Islamophobes have become so emboldened as to vandalise a sign outside an event because they see the word 'Muslim’,” CAIR Austin’s Maira Sheikh said in a statement.
“We urge law enforcement to treat this as a possible hate crime and to step up efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
TRT World was unable to reach the Bastrop Police Department for comment.
Spate of incidents
The incident took place during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which this year spans from May 5 until June 4, and comes just a month after an attempted arson attack on a mosque in nearby Austin, Texas.
Just weeks before Ramadan began, shortly before midnight on April 23, a masked man arrived at the North Austin Muslim Center and attempted to set ablaze the fence surrounding the facility’s perimeter.
Similar suspected attacks have continued throughout Ramadan, a trend that worries watchdogs.
On May 12, a fire broke out at the Diyanet Mosque of New Haven in Connecticut. Although authorities said the motives remained unclear, they believed the blaze was intentionally set.
A week later, on May 20, police arrested 27-year-old Brandyn Hernandez after he sent a slew of Facebook threats to the Islamic Center of Greater Miami-Masjid Miami Gardens in Florida.
Hernandez had allegedly threatened to set the facility on fire and “kill Muslims one by one”, according to local media reports.
The spate of suspected hate crimes comes as anti-Muslim groups have been emboldened and amid a surge in hate crimes.
On May 6, CAIR published a report that shed light on the massive funding allotted to anti-Muslim advocacy groups across the US.
The report found that more than 1,000 nonprofit organisations poured more than $125 million into 39 anti-Muslim groups nationwide between 2014 and 2016.
Dubbing the groups as part of the “Islamophobia industry”, CAIR described the groups as “a close-knit family of organisations and individuals that share an ideology of extreme anti-Muslim animus”.
According to the report, these groups “work with one another to negatively influence public opinion and government policy about Muslims and Islam”.
Since coming to office in January 2017, President Donald Trump has been accused of inflaming anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment.
In mid-May, Trump welcomed diplomats and ambassadors from Muslim-majority countries at the White House iftar.
“Ramadan is a time when people joined forces in pursuit of hope, tolerance and peace. It is in this spirit that we come together tonight,” Trump said at the event.
However, members of and groups representing the US Muslim community were not invited for a second year in a row.
Hate crimes have spiked since Trump came to office, prompting civil rights groups and watchdogs to accuse the president of mainstreaming racism and xenophobia.
These groups point to Trump’s call to completely ban Muslims from entering the US during the 2016 presidential campaign and his administration’s subsequent attempts to ban entry for travelers from several Muslim-majority countries.
In 2017, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) documented 7,175 hate crimes throughout the country, a 17-percent increase when compared to the previous year.
The report found that the number of incidents targeting Arabs had doubled that year.
In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based hate monitor, recorded at least 100 anti-Muslim groups operating in the US.
Engie Mohsen, a policy program manager at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, explained that American Muslims have “experienced anti-Muslim bigotry” since “long before” the Trump administration.
“However, data shows a significant increase in hate groups and hate crimes impacting American Muslims and other minority communities in the last few years,” Mohsen told TRT World, adding that community leaders “are becoming growingly concerned about the safety and security of their congregants”.
“When you go to the mosques now, there is increased security and it contributes to the sense that American Muslims aren’t safe anymore,” Mohsen said.
At the time of publication, the White House had not replied to TRT World’s request for comment.
With incidents like the one in Bastrop, Texas, becoming more frequent, Muslim Space’s Igram does not expect much to come from the investigation into the vandalism of the group’s sign.
And despite the concern stemming from the incident, Igram said that the local Muslim community will continue reaching out to their neighbours to foster a “better relationship”.
“Whatever fear, anger or frustration folks feel gets thrown out because of all the support we get,” she said.
“The support and the folks in our community who stand up as allies, that gives us the amount of protection we need to continue living our lives.”