In 2017, a mosque was destroyed by fire in the South Texas city of Victoria. It became a national news story. There were obvious questions to be raised by those events—questions of racism, immigration, Islamophobia, and what it means to be an American. Lu Li’s A Town Called Victoria is a three episode series on PBS’s Independent Lens that tells that story, but does so by letting us learn about the community involved.
There have been Muslims in Victoria since the 1970s. They built their mosque there in 2000. Many of the Muslim community have been very active in the broader community in many ways. One even ran for mayor a few years ago. The leaders of the Islamic Center that we meet are all proud to be Muslim and proud to be American—and Texan. When their mosque burned, they were hoping that it was an accident. They didn’t want to think that someone would target them.
But this was an arson.
The broader community of Victoria responded with great kindness. When a GoFundMe campaign was launched, many gave to it (eventually raising over $1,000,000). The first time the Islamic community gathered to pray, scores of their neighbors came to be with them. The local synagogue gave the imam the keys to the synagogue for whatever they might need. This is the kind of support we would hope to see in any community.
However, the series is not blind to the darker side of humanity. While it may seem that Victoria is close knit community, it is not without its problems. We hear people who are convinced that Muslims are terrorists. We hear politicians (like Ted Cruz) use fear of the Other in their campaign rhetoric. We hear a former pastor relate stories of hatred from within his congregation. A former mayor tells us, “This is South Texas. Progress comes one funeral at a time.”
The series also sets the story in the political world. The arson happened the night after President Trump signed a travel ban affecting many Moslem nations. Is that just a coincidence or did the anti-Islam and anti-immigrant focus seem to give permission to those who would seek to act in what they might think as for the good of the country?
When a young Latino is arrested for the crime, we also get a look into the Latinx community. Many are hurt and saddened that one of their own might have done such a thing, The Hispanic people we meet want to distance themselves from such actions, but they know that some will want to taint their community because of this.
The strongest part of the series is the way Muslims are represented. They are well educated (several are doctors); they are community leaders. Most of all, they are people of faith who are trying to live out the teachings of Islam. They act with compassion and kindness. They speak openly about praying for the person who set the fire and for his parents and the suffering they must deal with.
The weakest part of the series is when we meet the arsonist’s parents. They refuse to believe—in spite of great evidence—that their son could have done this. They use their own faith to uphold their belief that their son will not be convicted.
The question in my mind at the end of watching was “what would constitute justice in this story?” Is a conviction and jail term the best we can hope for? Does the opening of a news Islamic Center the end of the story? Is there more healing to be done in the various communities? How would restorative justice take place in this community?
Victoria, Texas, is a community with flaws, but the picture we get here is of a community (or perhaps more correctly a community of communities) that may struggle with differences, but that wants to find a way for all to live together. It would be unfortunate if that only happened “one funeral at a time”.
Independent Lens offers a discussion guide for those who want to dig more deeply into the story and the issues involve.
A Town Called Victoria is available on PBS. Check local listings.
Photos courtesy of Independent Lens.