Sheikh Attia Omara said he feels he preaches better in the unique atmosphere out in Lake Travis area, which he has visited regularly as the community has started the early stages of building a mosque. For this reason, among others, he said he was excited to begin his new role as the imam for the Islamic Center of Lake Travis in early December.
Omara grew up in Egypt, where he attended school to become an imam. He moved to Austin in 2012 and took a job at the Islamic Center of Greater Austin and the Austin Peace Academy. He is taking over the job after a two-year vacancy left when Sheikh Mohamed-Umer Esmail, a well known member of the Austin Muslim community, died in September 2019.
“I want to be part of building a new community. Most of the communities here in Austin are established,” he said. “I want to be part of building the community there in terms of programs, activities, building relations with neighbors and communities, other faiths and building this connection.”
As he takes on his new role, Omara is also studying to receive his PhD in Islamic studies with a minor in religious studies at the University of Texas. When he first arrived in the United States, he received his masters in adult and community education at Texas State University.
He said his first priority is to build connections with people in the Muslim community in Lake Travis.
“The first thing is to build trust with community members, so to get to know everyone,” he said. “We've been doing programs like community potlucks, and we did a welcome dinner so that I can meet everyone.”
Shakeel Rashed, a board member at the center, said that hiring a new imam was the community’s big goal this year.
“We had some very specific requirements. Our mosque is quite diverse in attendance, we have people from all over the place,” he said. “So we were looking for somebody who appreciates that diversity and promotes inclusion.”
Rashed said that one of the reasons Omara was a good fit is because of his experience teaching and working with kids.
“The thing that our community is always most concerned about is the next generation,” he said. “And because (Sheikh Omara) was a teacher at the Austin Peace Academy, we know he is able to work with kids and ... he can get them more involved with ICLT.”
With the new imam in place, Rashed said the community will focus on planning for a new mosque building. The center was building a mosque in 2017 when the site caught fire and burned the construction to the ground. Federal and local authorities investigated the possibility of arson but Travis County Fire Marshal Tony Callaway said at the time that the cause of the fire may never be known.
Rashed said the community is ready to continue its efforts toward building anew.
“It’s build time,” he said. “Now we actually have a leader who will be able to help us grow this community and sustain us. We always have plans for expanding the building and all of those things but what we are looking for right now is his ability to bring more people and engage more people within our community.”
Omara said he is also working on connecting with the community in Lake Travis beyond the center, including with other religious leaders in the area and in Austin as part of interfaith efforts to build relationships between primarily Muslim, Christian and Jewish groups in the area.
He said his philosophy as an imam is that when you help people grow spiritually, the benefits of that growth expand outward into the entire community.
“Helping people grow spiritually is very important,” he said. “When we do that, you help individuals and you help the community at large because when people have this connection with God and they have the trust, and they have the concept of being faithful to God all the time, in my opinion it makes them more devoted citizens as well. So spirituality is the number one priority for me and I believe from spirituality so much good can come out.”
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Islamic Center of Lake Travis welcomes new imam after over two years