Hate Crime or a Prank?

Islamic worshippers uneasy after four severed ram heads left on grounds

American-Statesman/May 30, 1998
By Kim Sue Lia Perkes

In some ways, it was like any other Friday at the Islamic Center of Greater Austin. Almost 300 men, women and children showed up for the weekly prayer gathering that is observed in two houses near the University of Texas campus. On this typically muggy summer day, they answered the call for prayer with the painful knowledge that two days earlier, the mosque grounds were violated.

Four severed ram heads were hung on the back fence of their property.

"They smelled so bad," said Mehmet Tanis, who oversees the mosque. "Someone went through a lot of work to keep the heads and so forth. "It's not like a simple thing you buy in the grocery store."

It started Tuesday. Abdul Aleem had come to the mosque at 6 p.m. for evening prayer. He heard a racket in the alley outside the mosque fence. When he investigated, he found a severed ram's head lying on a concrete ledge that is part of the Islamic center's fence. "I thought it was a prank," he said. It could have been a weird joke by university students or one of the transients who frequent the alley, Aleem said.

It got worse Wednesday. That's when Golam Chowdhury came for midday prayer (Muslims pray five times a day). He parked in the alley and discovered a gruesome sight. "That's when I noticed four heads, with lots of those flies and a bad, rotten smell," he recounted, crinkling his nose as he recalled the odor. On the ground was a piñata doll of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl and next to the doll's head, one of the ram heads. The others were hung on the fence.

Chowdhury called Tanis, who in turn reported it to the police. The police came, put on rubber gloves and threw the heads in a nearby Dumpster. "I thought they would take fingerprints," said Aleem, who was at the scene to report the Tuesday incident.

It is routine procedure to take photos and immediately dispose of dead animals, Police Department spokesman Kevin Buchman said. "We don't want to try to secure ram heads."

Police are not releasing any information on the incident, but the matter was turned over to an investigator Friday, Buchman said.

In December, the mosque grounds were burglarized, Tanis said, but that is not uncommon in the neighborhood. As a result, the mosque installed an alarm system, motion sensors and chain-link gates, which also keep out transients. A new mosque is under construction in East Austin to better serve the metropolitan area's 4,000 Muslims.

Police would not speculate on who planted the animal heads or why. Several Muslims said it would almost be a relief to find out the desecration was done by teen-agers or a cult. "If it's some kids playing or it's some Satan cult that is doing its own thing, that is not as bad as if it's intimidation toward us," Farah Mustafa said.

Nationwide, mosques often are the targets of hate crimes. No one can remember the Austin mosque being defiled out of religious or racial hatred, Tanis said. "We have never seen anything like that."

It's unlikely the incident had anything to do with Satanism, said Rick Ross, a Phoenix-based cult expert who became known in Central Texas when he was the adviser to the FBI during the 1993 Branch Davidian standoff in Waco. "The overwhelmingly majority of acts that are frequently labeled as Satanism turn out to be the anti-social behavior of teens and gangs acting out," Ross said. Unfortunately, Ross added, teens and gangs often are motivated by racial and religious bigotry. "Islam is a very vibrant, growing group in America, [perhaps this is a bigoted reaction to their success]" he said.

Islam -- an Arabic word that means peace, purity, acceptance and commitment -- teaches adherents they have an obligation to treat their relatives and neighbors with kindness and consideration. It forbids hunting for game and cutting down trees and plants that bear fruit unless there is necessary reason. Followers of Islam are expected to recognize their moral responsibility to humankind, animals, trees and plants. It is another reason why Muslims at the Austin mosque find the desecration so offensive. "The people who did this have so much misunderstanding of Islam," said Yasmin Turk.

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