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Is it Dangerous to Be a Muslim in Texas?

Faith groups fear that anti-refugee sentiment is creating an "environment of permission" for violence against Muslims.

Christian Petersen / Getty Images

Times are tense in Texas.

On Tuesday, dueling groups of protesters, some outfitted in camouflage gear and carrying loaded rifles, clashed outside the Islamic Center of Irving, a mosque serving the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex’s Muslim community. It wasn’t the first time the mosque has been the site of anti-Muslim demonstration: Last month, armed protesters gathered outside the Islamic Center of Irving to protest the “Islamization of America.” The Klu Klux Klan has now vowed to repeat the demonstration sometime in December.

“This is worse than what happened after 9/11,” Mona Kafeel, chief operating officer at the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation, told the New Republic. “This is a more tense situation. People are afraid. People really are afraid.”

Architectural symbols of Islam have been frequently targeted over the last two months—in mid-November a mosque in Pflugerville was vandalized with feces and pages were torn out of a Koran. But intimidation and menacing gestures targeted at individuals appear to be on the rise as well. Two Muslim women recently reported a tense encounter with an irate customer at an Austin cafe who was making comments about guns and shooting, while Texas resident Omar Siddiqi says he was threatened as he got into his car at a Dallas mall last month by a gun-wielding stranger who told him: “If I wanted to, I could kill you right now.”

“A few friends of mine have stopped wearing their headscarves, they are so afraid,” Kafeel said. “And they’re afraid because they received threats. ... I have colleagues who, when they drive around, are scared to stop at a red light, because people make all kinds of gestures.”

Kafeel has special reason to be concerned about the increasingly tense atmosphere in Texas. The Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation is one of numerous nonprofits, many of them faith-based, that have stepped up to aid refugees from Iraq and Syria against the wishes of the state of Texas. In late November the state’s Health and Human Services Commission sent a letter to all nonprofits and agencies offering refugee services requesting that they report any Syrians they planned to resettle, and to halt resettlement of Syrians immediately. Without any indication of how the state will respond to organizations that refuse to cooperate, many agencies still chose to continue extending aid to refugees, with some citing federal law and religious liberty protections in public statements.

Nonetheless, the Texas state government has continued to ratchet up its legislative activity and rhetoric against refugees from Iraq and Syria. Since sending the letter, the Texas governor’s office has sued the federal government and requested a temporary restraining order on the latest batch of refugees. When the Obama administration challenged the order last week, Texas withdrew the request, but is still pursuing its lawsuit and a preliminary injunction against Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

Meanwhile, Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, traveled to Washington, D.C., December 8 with Texas Governor Greg Abbott to jointly introduce the State Refugee Security Act, a piece of legislation Cruz said “will protect the authority of the states and the authority of the governors to keep their citizens safe.” It will do this, Cruz said, by allowing state governors to reject the resettlement of specific refugees based on their own security criteria without opting out of the federal refugee resettlement program, which funds resettlement efforts. In their joint press conference, Cruz and Abbott repeatedly emphasized their concern for the safety and security of state citizens; in other comments about proposed refugee bans, Cruz has been clear that he believes Muslim refugees specifically pose a threat to Americans.

The message is resonating. “The political environment right now is very disrespectful,” Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact/Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said in a phone call with the New Republic, adding, “That atmosphere of disrespect and the leadership of a few really vocal and polarizing voices is enough to create an environment of really poisonous permission. All of your worst instincts to hurt and degrade other members of your community seem like they’re existing in an environment where they’re more normal than they should seem.”

Moorhead said Muslim members of Texas Impact have expressed worries for their own safety as legislative attempts to bar refugees based on religion have escalated, accompanied by an increase in anti-Muslim incidents. “The Muslim community is saying, ‘This is really getting to be a lot, it’s really getting bad, it’s every day, more of the same,’” Moorhead said, “We’re getting individual members calling us and indicating they’re concerned.”

But just as Texas’s religious nonprofits have chosen to ignore the state’s order to suspend aid to refugees, interfaith groups have also made efforts to strengthen relations with Muslim partners as tensions have risen. “We are engaging a lot of interfaith dialogue, and up until now, those relationships have come through for us,” Kafeel explained. “There have to be one-on-one relationships—we all should be coming out of our bubble.” 

The Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation has scheduled several interfaith events in the coming month, Kafeel said, and there have also been personal efforts, such as a Christian friend of Kafeel’s visiting local mosques and connecting with women attendees. Texan churches, including United Methodist and Unitarian Universalist congregations, have prayed and rallied in support of their Muslim neighbors since tensions began heightening in November.

A Human Services Committee hearing scheduled for next week could clarify some of the state’s intentions for agencies who have continued to assist refugees, and might shed light on whether or not the governor’s office has actually received credible information suggesting that the Syrian and Iraqi refugees destined for the state pose an imminent security threat. But the hearing will be strictly informational, not decisive. The state’s lawsuit and Cruz’s proposed legislation are still pending, and it isn’t clear when any resolution will arrive.

In the meantime, Moorhead says, Texas faith groups are committed to de-escalating tensions and creating an atmosphere of peace as they carry out their charitable services. “For people from Texas, it’s not ridiculous, it’s painful. ... This isn’t Texas. We need to re-take our position as national leaders in the time-honored American work of welcoming the stranger and showing hospitality to people from all over the world.”