Seated in a booth at a Round Rock cafe on a recent Wednesday, Susan Sneller asked the question she’d always wondered about the headscarf, or hijab, that some women wear.
“Don’t you get hot in the summer wearing something on your head all day?” Sneller, who had never met anyone of the Muslim faith, asked Nadia Ahmad. “I want to take everything off and fan myself in summer in Texas.”
But Ahmad welcomed the question. In the summer, Ahmad explained, she wears clothing made of lighter weight material with good ventilation. “Don’t worry; we’re fine. We’re not forcing ourselves,” she said with a laugh.
It’s exactly this kind of learning and relationship-building that Ahmad and other members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Austin had in mind when the group began holding “Coffee, Cake and True Islam” events on Wednesdays at coffee shops in Austin and Round Rock. The events, which have been featured by KUT and other media outlets, and others like them are being held by chapters throughout the country.
Their message? “We are here to stay and we are your neighbors; come talk to us,” Ahmad said.
Arif Mirza is director of outreach for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Austin, which has a mosque in Round Rock and draws members from as far away as San Antonio. He points to a recent statistic: Just 38 percent of Americans say they know someone who is Muslim, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. And even if they do, he said, they might not feel comfortable sharing their curiosities with that person.
“The idea is to give Americans who otherwise do not know a Muslim a chance to come in and ask any questions they might have about Islam,” Mirza said. “We’re hoping that in the long term we can bring about a change in attitude that is going to last.”
The same Pew survey showed that 41 percent of Americans view Muslims more coldly than warmly. And hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise. Last year, the number of physical assaults against Muslims in the United States reached 9/11-era levels, according to hate crimes statistics from the FBI.
At first, Mirza said, he worried about the potential backlash of putting on such an event, but he turned out to be “pleasantly surprised” by its positive reception.
Mirza recalled that once, a woman who was offended by the event accidentally called him to complain, thinking she was contacting the owner of the coffee shop. Once he told her who he was, however, the two ended up talking for 20 minutes, and the woman changed her tune, saying she’d like to meet him for coffee some time.
“Having that one-on-one conversation with somebody and getting to know that they have similar struggles in life and they probably feel the same way about things that you do, it has a way of affecting people that watching something on TV or somebody giving a lecture just doesn’t,” Mirza said.
In one of Wednesday’s small group conversations, Deborah Harris asked Touba Khurshid and Aziza Faruqi why they wanted to participate in the event. Khurshid, who had spent years living in London, told a story about going to South Dakota for the first time and noticing that people were staring at her.
“I remember all the looks that I was getting, and that was the first time I was like ‘Oh my gosh.’ I had never thought that I would get such curious looks as if they hadn’t seen a woman with a scarf,” Khurshid said. “It kind of made me realize there’s a big need for people to know about Islam.”
Contrary to that experience, Faruqi said she has never felt out of place during her 25 years in the U.S. because embracing differences is what America is about.
“That’s the America that we live in. That’s what we cherish,” Faruqi said. “So what disturbs us is the fact that living in such a multicultural, multireligion country, how can people still have fear of one faith or unwillingness to learn about other faiths?”
Faruqi said she wished more people outside of these events would feel free to ask her questions about Islam.
At the events, Mirza said questions range from personal (“How did you learn about Islam?”) to theological (“What does Islam say about God?”) to political (“How do you feel about President Donald Trump’s travel ban?”).
Politics and the new administration are what drew Sneller and Austin couple Jack and Barbara Bresette-Mills to recent coffee shop events. All are part of Indivisible, a national anti-Trump network with Austin origins.
“Because of this election, we both feel we have to stand up for people of color and minorities,” Jack Bresette-Mills said. “It seems to be a racist move in our government.”
“A lot of people have been cut down, and horrible things were said the whole campaign about all different kinds of people, be it women, be it Muslims, be it African-Americans, be it indigenous,” Barbara Bresette-Mills said.
“It’s simply wrong. It’s not American. (To be) American (means) everybody’s welcome,” Jack Bresette-Mills said.
On a basic level, he said, just as the members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community came to show them that not all Muslims are terrorists, he and his wife came to show them that not all non-Muslims are Islamophobic.
“We also just like to meet people,” Barbara Bresette-Mills said. “And I feel like that’s the best way to change things is to have human interaction. Talk to each other.”
At one point in the conversation with Ahmad and another woman, Maliah Ahmed, Sneller asked them what they would say if they could talk to Trump.
“We would invite him to ‘Coffee, Cake and True Islam,’” Ahmad said. The group laughed.
If you go
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Austin hosts “Coffee, Cake and True Islam” events from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays at two locations:
• Caffe Medici at 2222 Guadalupe St. in Austin
• Corner Bakery Cafe at 110 N. Interstate 35 in Round Rock