After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston this past weekend, some organizations — like megachurch pastor Joel Osteen's 16,800-seat Lakewood Church — came under fire for not doing enough to help those displaced by the flooding, which has killed at least 46 as of Friday morning. But for other religious groups in the region, including several of the Houston area’s Muslim communities, Harvey was a call to solidarity — and action.
One priest checked submerged cars to ensure no passengers were trapped inside. Jewish outreach organization Chabad House sent truckloads of food from New York and Miami. According to ThinkProgress’s Jack Jenkins, at least nine houses of worship in Houston, and several more outside the immediate Houston area, have opened their doors as shelters to afflicted residents or engaged in community outreach. Among them are the Woodlands Church, Salt and Light Ministries, and a number of mosques, including the Brand Lane Center in Stafford, Texas.
Muslim groups have been particularly visible in the Harvey relief effort. For example, the Council of Islamic American Relations called on Muslims to supplement their customary donations for the Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Adha this week, with an equal donation for Harvey relief efforts.
Locally, around 140 young Muslims from organizations like the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association and Muslim Youth USA — in partnership with the Ahmadiyya Muslim global disaster relief charity Humanity First — took to Houston’s flooded streets this weekend. They’ve cooked and served hot food and snacks to evacuees, distributed hygiene products, and even rescued stranded Houston residents by boat.
About 60,000 Muslims call Houston home, and about 700 — according to Ahmadiyya Youth Association representative Waqas Hussain — are members of the Ahmadiyya community, a movement of followers of 19th-century Punjabi religious leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.
Houston’s Ahmadi Muslims are often the subject of double-discrimination. On the one hand, they, like many Muslim Americans, have been subjected to wider Islamophobic discrimination — Texas, like America more broadly, has seen a number of instances of arson, vandalism, and assault against Muslims or Muslim institutions, many of which have been prosecuted as hate crimes.
On the other hand, its adherents have also been accused by other Muslims of not being “real” Muslims. Ahmadis face persecution or legal restrictions on their practice in some countries including Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Pakistan, where the government has officially declared them not Muslims.
In Houston, however, as in America more broadly, Ahmadiyya Muslims are often at the forefront of Muslim outreach. In 2013, Houston Ahmadis led a pro-peace dialogue pegged to the release of Islamophobic propaganda film The Innocence of Muslims. This March, Houston Ahmadis spearheaded an “#AskaMuslim” program, where community representatives manned booths in a public park and offered to answer residents’ questions. Ahmadiyya Muslims were also part of a similarly structured outreach program this summer in England following the London and Manchester attacks.
For Rahman Nasir, a Houston-based spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association and a coordinator in the relief effort, community outreach has always been part of his faith and practice. “I’m 23 [now],” Nasir told Vox, “so I was a young volunteer during Katrina”; he accompanied his father, who volunteered there. “Houston’s the only home I’ve ever known. And seeing a city that’s given you so much in so much pain — as Muslim youths, we wanted to give what we could back to the city.” So far, he’s coordinated rescues by boat and distributed food and water to evacuees.
Nasir said, as a Muslim, he hasn’t encountered difficulties in Houston. “I can’t complain,” he said. He acknowledged things had been more difficult since “our new president and all that.” Ultimately, he said, Houstonians’ identity as Houstonians has become more important than any other distinction, as they collectively face the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath.
“Agendas [have] been wiped away in the face of this disaster. Nobody looks at your religion, your skin color,” Nasir said. There’s African Americans helping white people. There’s white people — you know, rural South, Confederate flag [bearing] white people — are going out on boats helping African Americans. All that matters is the Houston family we got going on and being there for each other.”