“Recent threats stokes fear in Muslim community”
By Rachel Goodman
The local Muslim community is taking steps to improve security measures and social awareness in conjunction with the Austin Police Department in response to recent threats at Muslim institutions.
Since 9/11, many Americans have feared members of the Islamic faith and the recent media coverage of the Islamic State group hasn’t helped. These feelings have translated into actions against Muslim communities across the country, including here in Austin. Local Muslims say they are concerned not just for their businesses’ safety, but for their homes and themselves as well.
“People are scared,” Muslim Austinite Muna Hussaini said. “Especially women who wear headscarves because we are visibly Muslim.”
According to a Travis County arrest affidavit, a 54-year-old man called in separate bomb threats to two area Muslim institutions on Feb. 17. While it was determined that the man’s actions were a result of psychiatric issues and not a hate crime, the incident has caused the targeted institutions and the wider Austin Muslim community to increase security measures.
The caller, Azzam Ahmed Baytie, had stayed at the North Austin Muslim Community Center the night prior to making bomb threats to the center and the Arab Cowboy Hookah lounge near the UT campus. Baytie was charged with terroristic threat, a third-degree felony.
For safety reasons, a representative from the community center declined to comment on the exact details of security efforts following the incident.
The police department, however, has been vocal about their availability to Muslim institutions looking to take extra safety precautions.
“We’re here to make sure that each community feels welcome,” Mike Sheffield, manager of the police department’s Office of Community Liaison, said. “We’ll do a business security survey to let them know where their vulnerable points are and answer any questions they might have.”
While Sheffield, a 30-year-veteran of the department, said that increasing physical security is an important aspect in the fight against these sorts of threats, he added that community education plays an important role.
Hussaini, a member of the Austin/Travis County Hate Crimes Task Force, had already begun discussing the need for community dialogue with Sheffield before hostile anti-Muslim remarks were made at the Capitol Jan. 29 during Muslim Capitol day.
Five days later, Hussaini stood shoulder to shoulder with Police Chief Art Acevedo in a press conference Feb. 3. Both reiterated the trust-laden ties between the department and the Muslim community and that neither condones the actions of groups abroad like the Islamic State.
“We stand with our Muslim community,” Acevedo told reporters. “We should not paint an entire religion of over a billion people around this planet by the actions of a handful.”
In a phone interview, Hussaini said that these recent events are only a few examples of the threats directed at members of her community.
“Muslim people have had their identities sacrificed, again not by our choice, but they’ve taken our identities and it’s not fair,” Hussaini said.
“People tend to be afraid of what they don’t understand or what they’ve never dealt with before,” Sheffield said. “We are trying to get folks to see more than what is on the different news channels where you only see the horrors going on over there.”
Sherry Tucci, a junior journalism major at UT, said that these recent developments have caused her to feel uncomfortable walking alone in West Campus and around Austin because of her religious headscarf.
“After the Chapel Hill shootings, I did feel kind of scared and apprehensive,” the 21-year-old Houston native said. “It just all of a sudden felt like there were so many attacks on Muslims and a lot of my friends posted statuses about it warning everyone to be safe and careful.”
Sheffield and Hussaini hope to set up a couple of town hall meetings over the next few months to discuss the perception of the Muslim community, hate crime education and avenues to create more dialogue among an already diverse and eclectic Austin population.
In the meantime, Sheffield said that there are ways the Muslim and wider community can help mitigate the situation.
“If you don’t know or don’t understand the Muslim community, don’t get your information from sources that tend to be accusatory of the Muslim community. Go find out for yourself,” he said.
Interaction, according to Sheffield, is the best way to dispel false notions seen online and in the media. He suggests going to a local mosque and interacting with those in attendance.
As for members of the Muslim community, Sheffield stressed the importance of reporting instances of hate crimes.
“It can be an underreported crime,” he said. “We wish they would report because it gives us a better sense of where there might be a problem developing.”
Despite this underreporting, every Texas crime report since 2001 has ranked anti-Islam hate crimes first or second among all religiously-directed reported incidents.
While Hussaini said she still is hypersensitive about her surroundings due to her identity, she is hopeful about progress in the local community.
“Uniqueness here is something that is special, not looked down upon and I think that’s a really beautiful thing about Austin,” she said. “If we want to keep Austin ‘Austin’, it’s all of our jobs to do that. Let’s all get to know our neighbors, let’s all build our bonds in this community.”