Muslims in Victoria Recall Changes Since 2017 Mosque Fire

"This senseless bigotry has to stop. It is destroying the country."

A year and a half after the gold-domed Victoria Islamic Center was torched, Irfan Qureshi, one of the first to arrive at the scene, vividly recalled the surreal horror of that morning, and the comforting aftermath.

"I was scared to my core. We had no facts. All we knew is the mosque is going up in flames. I thought, 'Is someone coming to kick us out?'" he said of the early morning fire Jan. 28, 2017.

The San Antonio Express-News reports hours later, as he and others picked through the charred ruins, compassionate strangers began to approach him.

"They were saying, 'We're very sorry,' and handing me cash and checks. You can't put a price on how much that lifted us up as a community," he recalled.

After a federal jury this month convicted Marq Vincent Perez of burning the mosque, local Muslims exchanged emotional embraces. Perez, 26, who had voiced his hatred of Muslims online, faces up to 40 years in prison when he is sentenced in October.

"It's like a load coming off your shoulders. A big stage of this whole ordeal is finished," said Abe Ajrami, a board member of the Victoria Islamic Center.

Despite the hoped-for legal outcome, Muslim leaders say many in their congregation of about 45 families remain traumatized.

Some members who dropped out of sight after the fire have not returned to worship. Some women have not resumed wearing the hijab, the headdress that marks them as Muslim, in public. And throughout the congregation, a sense of wary anxiety lingers.

Even as a splendid new mosque with an improved security system rises on the site of the old, talk of closure and healing is premature.

"It's like the church shooting in Sutherland Springs. These memories can haunt us. It happened once. Who can say it won't happen again," said Ajrami, 50, who was born in Gaza.

"Especially on Friday when we have the congregational prayers and potluck dinner, with more of the ladies and the kids. I find myself standing with my back to the wall and watching the front door," said Ajrami who now brings a gun to worship services.

From the day their mosque burned, Muslim leaders here kept to the high road. They avoided calling it an act of arson or a hate crime. They didn't claim to be victims. They praised the broad, supportive response by the local community.

At an interfaith prayer service held soon after the fire, other Victoria-area religious leaders stood shoulder to shoulder with the Muslims.

"I knew that if this was an intentional act, we were not alone in condemning it," Qureshi said.

Later, after Perez was charged, some of them prayed for him, that his hate would be replaced by love.

"Victoria is not looked at as the city that burned a Muslim church, it's looked at as the city that came together. It give me hope that the new generation, my kids, will understand that there are things to unite us," Ajrami said.

The mosque president, Shahid Hashmi, 71, was the first witness to testify in the trial of Perez, an electrician's apprentice, whose anti-Muslim Facebook messages and postings -- along with the secrets stored in his cellphone -- helped convict him.

Born in India, raised in Pakistan after the partition in 1947, Hashmi came to the United States in 1971 for advanced medical training. He became a U.S. citizen in 1981 and landed in Victoria in 1984, as the city's second Muslim family.

As more Muslims arrived, he told the jury, they began to worship together, first in each other's houses and then in a rented building.

In 1990 they bought a piece of property on Airline Road north of town. A decade later, they built their mosque. Houston Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon attended the grand opening.

Yusuf Islam, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, later was invited by the mosque to give a program about Islam at Victoria Community College.

From the beginning, leaders emphasized the mosque's open doors, involvement with others and civic participation that included the Rotary Club, Habitat for Humanity and Christ's Kitchen, which feeds the poor.

"We had good relations with the Victoria community. Different churches invited us and we had them come to visit us," Hashmi testified.

The growing congregation, he said, included Muslims from across the Middle East and Asia, as well as many American-born.

And like many churches, the mosque was more than just a place to pray.

"This is not only a place of worship, we have our weekly potluck dinners here and a school for teaching. We also have our funerals and our weddings here," he said.

Everything changed for the Victoria Muslims on Jan. 28, 2017.

A day after the fire, multiplying their fears, a gunman in Montreal killed six Muslim men and wounded 18 more in an attack during their evening prayers.

Since the fire, the Victoria Muslims have had to use two small temporary buildings for prayers.

Lately, they are sharing the space on Sundays with local Unitarians whose church was badly damaged when a car plowed through it.

"After the fire, we hired security to man the place, especially when we were there to pray," Dr. Hashmi recalled from the witness stand.

"Everyone was scared. We started locking the doors. It dwindled down to a very few of us who dared to be there, and even then, two of us would stand guard while the rest were praying," he testified.

Qureshi, who was born in Pakistan, was among the mosque members who attended Perez's five-day trial in U.S. District Court that ended July 16.

They heard how Perez surveilled the mosque and compared notes online with others who distrusted Muslims.

"A lot of the testimony was chilling. There is someone watching you when you go to worship. It's creepy," Qureshi said.

"We'll be looking over our shoulders now, but we don't want it to consume us and drift into paranoia," he said.

In designing the new mosque, leaders added cameras, alarms, lighting and strategic landscaping, like cutting down hedges where someone might conceal themselves, as they struggled to balance security and openness.

"It's easy after a fire to close your gate and lock things up, and that's something we fought hard against. We had an option to stop cars from driving into our parking lot, we pondered an electronic entry system. We opted to keep our doors open," Ajrami said.

Omar Rachid, another mosque board member, said an anti-Muslim climate that is encouraged by some political figures and national media outlets, means that Muslims can't afford to lower their guard.

"The reality of it is that Muslims in America have been subjected to more insults, attacks and hate crimes in the last two or three years than ever before, specifically more than after 9-11. Islamophobia is thriving," he said.

"This is not America. It is not the America I came to 35 years ago," he said.

Over the years, he said, members of the mosque have done their civic duty in Victoria.

"We serve our community. We volunteer. I have given thousands of hours to area agencies and charities. I have run for mayor. I was chairman of the United Way and the chamber of commerce," he said.

Rachid, 58, who was born in Lebanon, said what happened there 40 years ago should serve as a stern warning to Americans.

"I lived through the civil war there between the Christians and the Muslims, and I know what happened when people feed on divisions," he said.

"Lebanon was once one of the most beautiful and modern countries in the Middle East. The war lasted almost 20 years and almost a million people died. It set the country back 50 years," he said.

Of the United States, he said: "This senseless bigotry has to stop. It is destroying the country."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us