International Institute for Religious Freedom

Beyond the Flames: Islamic Mosque Resilience and Economic Threads Unraveled

ULACIT students contribute to religious freedom analysis with a blog on resilience and economic challenges for religious communities.


As previously announced here, in the context of the collaboration between the IIRF and the School of International Relations of the Latin American University of Science and Technology (ULACIT) of Costa Rica, students of the course “International Political Economy” developed an analysis of the relationship between religious freedom and development. This is the first post published as the students’ contribution to the IIRF.


  • Mary Margaret Davenport
  • Mariana Chia Jimenez
  • Sofia Ortiz Gonzalez

In the early morning hours of January 7, 2017, the soon-to-be-opened Islamic Center of Lake Travis, a two-story structure rising from the Texas landscape, faced destruction in a fire that threatened not just a building but the dreams and efforts of a community. The mosque, still under construction with scaffolding and an active construction site, stood as a testament to the resilience and aspirations of local Muslims.

This tragic incident, however, extends beyond the realms of a conventional news story. It delves into the intricate interplay between religious freedom and the local economy—a complex web where the threads of faith and finance are woven. The mosque, born out of a vision that emerged in 2011, was not merely a place of worship but an embodiment of community solidarity and economic investment. This blog aims to unravel the layers of significance hidden within the charred remains of the Islamic Center, and subsequent rebuilding. It is not just a narrative of destruction but a journey into the unique focus on the intersection between religious freedom and the local economy. Beyond the headlines, this incident prompts us to ask profound questions about how religious freedom is intertwined with the economic fabric of a community.

Historical and Demographic Context

As we navigate through the aftermath of the fire that claimed over $400,000 in damages, it is essential to provide background on the local area and its predominantly white demographic. In 2017, the population of Hudson Bend consisted of 78.9% white, 12.3% white Hispanic, and 4.2% Asian residents, totaling 2,263 individuals.

Hudson Bend’s demographic makeup shapes the context of the incident. The area has a distinct demographic profile that influences community dynamics and interactions. Understanding the local demographic composition is crucial for unraveling the complexities surrounding the destruction of the Islamic Center.

Considering the social factors, it’s important to recognize the Islamic Center’s broader purpose. According to Shakeel Rashed, a board member of the center, it was built not only as a place of worship but also to provide community-based services. Plans included establishing a library to offer insight into Muslim practices and the center’s mission, as well as a basket-ball court, and medical clinic. This multifaceted vision might have played a role in shaping local perceptions and reactions.

Despite ongoing investigations, we may never know the exact reason for the fire, as the investigation has remained inconclusive. As revealed in an interview with the Lake Travis Fire Rescue, the weather conditions during the fire were challenging, with low temperatures, ice, and rain. This raises questions about the circumstances leading to the fire, especially when coupled with previous incidents of vandalizations, such as the bobcat trucks being targeted.

Religious Freedom in Development

Mosques serve a much more complex role than just being a place of worship for followers of Islam; as they also often host educational programs, community events, and even small businesses that contribute to the economic vibrancy of the surrounding area. They are vibrant and prevalent spaces for their communities. The same could be said for the Islamic Center of Lake Travis had it been allowed to open before the incident; especially considering that the community was experiencing growth from about 200 plus families moving to the area, and the visits from people in the area were traveling about 12 to 15 miles away for service.

When we examine situation like the one that occurred in Lake Travis; it is important to consider the political climate, media influence, community dynamics; as well as the economic disparities, competition for resources, and the local business landscape. The political landscape at the time plays a significant role. Rhetoric that targets certain religious or ethnic groups can create an atmosphere of hostility, potentially spilling over into acts of violence against religious institutions, often directed against Muslim communities in the United States, often also influenced by media narratives of the group, especially in a community where said affected population was already underrepresented; that being due to the area having a very low level of diversity; having a mostly white American population; this in addition to all mentioned created a space where hostility towards the community could easily fester and result in events such as the examined.

With regard to the economic aspects, there was no evidence that the Islamic community posed a “threat” to the competition for resources or the local business landscape, although members of the community lived in the area surrounding Hudson Bend.  This event shows the complex interplay between political and economic factors, highlighting how discriminatory political rhetoric, policies, economic disparities, and competition for resources can converge to undermine religious freedom.

Local Responses: Residents and Businesses

After the incident, some of the locals agreed to be interviewed. The majority of them expressed how terrible and sad they felt when they heard the news, showing solidarity and empathy towards their Muslim neighbors. Some of them expressed their thought of it being a “hate crime” against Muslims. Nevertheless, there were people who didn’t feel comfortable sharing their opinion about the Islamic center or even about Islam in general, and of course there were people who expressed how Muslims were trying to populate the United States and even brought terrorism to the table.

Mindy Gulati, who is the President of the Lake Travis Progressives group, started fundraising to rebuild the center. The Rally for Love and Unity was one of the activities that this group organized to help. “It’s just an opportunity for us to meet more of our neighbors and to show signs of love in spite of this tragic fire,” said Gulati. Unfortunately, when the Lake Travis progressive group showed their respect on social media, some people expressed their hatred, discriminated them and left offensive comments. Nevertheless, this didn’t keep the progressive group and people from showing their support for Muslims.

Shakeel Rasheds, a board member of the center shared how he felt the solidarity from his neighbors, local Christian churches and synagogues, and how they were all looking forward to starting the rebuilding of the center. “The fire has actually been a blessing, because we got involved with a lot of interfaith work in and around the city.”

“A lot of churches, synagogues, faith-based and non-faith-based organizations came out in support of the Islamic Center. That is one of the things we see as our role is being part of that interfaith community, basically helping people understand us better.” Anjum Hanaji, a Muslim neighbor, also shared how grateful he was for all the support people were showing, “Building people up instead of tearing them down is incredibly heart-warming, especially after our center burned down. To see this kind of love and support out here, it’s overwhelming, it’s really overwhelming.”

Ideological Dimensions

After analyzing the reaction and responses from the locals, it is easier to understand how there are different perspectives and opinions about the topic. Ideological disagreements have been a part of conflicts, in this case, the cause of fire is unknown but people inside the community had theories saying that it was arson and a hate crime towards Muslims in the community. After the incident, the community started to show their support and respect towards their Muslim neighbors even though they don’t practice a religion per se.

The issue of religious freedom assumes a crucial role in this context, shedding light on the paradox that exists despite the overarching freedom in the United States. Although the nation champions freedom, some individuals harbor reservations, particularly when it comes to matters of religion. This skepticism often manifests as sweeping generalizations, as observed in the case of Muslims, who are unfairly labeled as terrorists. Moreover, the Jewish community has also faced persistent challenges over the years in the United States, enduring discrimination that persisted even after the conclusion of World War II. These instances underscore the pervasive struggle for religious freedom, emphasizing its precarious standing in society. It becomes evident that religious freedom encounters resistance more often than not, emphasizing its indispensable nature in addressing such complex issues.

Community Engagement and Rebuilding

In the wake of the destructive fire at the Islamic Center of Lake Travis, the community rallied with resilience and unity. The Interfaith Ambassadors of Lake Travis, a group dedicated to bridging faiths within the community, emerged as a beacon of solidarity. Quarterly community events organized by the mosque invited residents to engage with one another, fostering a space for understanding and collaboration.

Building upon this commitment to unity, the Islamic Center Lake Travis joined hands with Lake Travis United Methodist Church to organize “Solidarity with the Community.” This event aimed to showcase unanimity among diverse faiths within the community. Following the devastating incident, Lake Travis United Methodist Church hosted an interfaith forum, drawing 250–300 people for a time of prayer and community building.

These interfaith initiatives exemplify the pivotal role of community engagement in addressing religious freedom challenges. By bringing together individuals from Jewish, Islamic, Christian, and secular groups, these events serve as platforms for dialogue, understanding, and shared humanity. The intentional effort to bridge religious divides fosters an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance within the community.

Beyond symbolic gestures, these community engagement efforts extend to the crucial task of rebuilding. The joint rebuilding support from various faith groups not only contributes to the physical reconstruction of the Islamic Center but also plays a significant role in fostering local economic development. As the community collaboratively works towards rebuilding, economic ties are strengthened, and the shared commitment to religious tolerance becomes a cornerstone for future endeavors.

Moreover, these meetings and collaborative efforts could be a significant factor contributing to the decision to rebuild the mosque in the same location after the fire. The shared experiences, understanding, and commitment forged during these interfaith gatherings likely played a crucial role in the community’s decision to rebuild, reinforcing the bonds that transcend the physical structure of the mosque.

Media Representation and Economic Narratives

From the articles observable now, six years after the fire occurred, the media portrayal and news spread of the highlighted incident was limited. Most of the observed articles include a report from two months after the incident and reports of the reconstruction being completed. The role played by media representation in shaping public perceptions of religious freedom and its importance should not be underestimated. Islam, and its followers, are incredibly poorly portrayed.  “This clear anti-Muslim bias in news coverage of attacks based on religion might explain why members of the American public tend to fear Muslims more than other groups today.” Often, this greatly affects the Muslim population, as their portrayal affects the public understanding of the economic contributions made by Muslims. Having fair and accurate representation of any group fosters a climate of acceptance, and in this case would be encouraging the Muslim population to fully engage in economic activities.

When positively represented, the successes and diverse contributions of Muslim entrepreneurs and professionals not only dispel stereotypes but also inspire a more inclusive economic landscape. On the opposing side, the negative portrayals that are more widespread create a disproportional disadvantage for Muslim professionals and Muslim-owned businesses, potentially limiting opportunities for economic growth within the Muslim community, as mentioned by CNN. A nuanced representation of Islam and other religions in the media is not only essential for promoting religious harmony, it is the promotion of a diverse and dynamic society through an economic lens. By showcasing the positive contributions of the Muslim community, the media can play a crucial role in creating a more robust and inclusive national economy that thrives on the principles of religious freedom.

Images: Islamic Center Of Lake Travis