In August 2017, SACIV hosted a delegation of four visitors from Spain (three from the Spanish enclave in North Africa, Ceuta, and one from Barcelona), participating in a project entitled “Empowering Communities to Prevent Radicalization Among Youth”. The objective of their program was to learn about relevant topics (including NGO efforts to enhance the understanding of Islam, non-discrimination & diversity training for law enforcement & local government employees, promoting diversity, empowering marginalized youth, and a visit to Victoria, TX for a case study on a small town’s response to a hate crime) from their counterparts and relevant organizations & programs here in the States as part of the US Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).The visitors were all advocates for their communities and were also committed to combatting religious intolerance, supporting democracy, and countering-extremists.
I was scheduled to meet with them, as President of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) - San Antonio to talk about the organization’s work as an advocate for justice, to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, and empower American Muslims, as well as our work dealing with government affairs and government relations. As a frequent columnist & speaker on inter-religious & Muslim issues for several local media outlets, I discussed CAIR’s civil rights & advocacy initiatives as well its role in discussing issues of importance with elected representatives, government agencies, or other stakeholders.
Since I am also a Board Member of the San Antonio Council for International Visitors (SAICV) I accompanied them on the bus trip to Victoria, TX. They visited the Victoria Islamic Center, which in January 2017, was destroyed in an arson attack as a hate crime. Donations to rebuild it surpassed $1 million from an online fundraising page and financial contributions from groups and individuals of various religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Visitors had an opportunity to meet with the Victoria Islamic Center’s leadership and other local religious leaders in the community (including the Victoria Islamic Center’s Board Members & Imam, the “Go Fund Me” campaign organizer, the architect for the new mosque, and Victoria’s Chief of Police & Fire Department Chief) to learn about how a hate crime targeting the Muslim community resulted in a show of support and solidarity across the country.
They all were very impressed to see the compassion showed by four churches and a synagogue that welcomed the city’s Muslim community to hold its services in their buildings. There were about fifteen members of the community present at the meeting at the Victoria Mosque, including a rabbi, a priest, and an imam. The chief of police was there too, and the architect who is designing the new mosque (a Christian). The community already had a strong interfaith group before the attack on the mosque.
A Christian woman told the story of its origins, when her daughter was having a sleepover with the daughter of one of the Muslim community leaders, and she overheard them talking. One girl asked the other, “Is your God the same as my God?” and the other answered, “I think so, but we call him Allah.” “And do you pray too?” “Yes, but we have to get down low on the floor, and we do it more often.” And the mother realized she wanted to live in a community where it would be as easy for adults to ask each other questions as it was for those little girls, so she made some phone calls and they started an organization so different religious groups could become educated about one another’s faiths while building personal relationships, which they do in some cases by participating in joint charity work, like feeding the poor.
It was an inspiring meeting and the visitors were touched to know how American Muslims feel so much at home in their adopted country, where all different faiths and cultures are warm and welcoming and live together in harmony, where at times it is hard and challenging in the present political climate.