By CHERREFE KADRI
Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017
America was founded on the principle that all peoples possess four freedoms, one of which is an inalienable right to believe, worship, and practice what they wish. In fact, religion has historically been at the heart of community building, and often the very first thing a new community does is establish a place of worship. This is also true for Muslims in America. When Muslims began to arrive in America in the North African slave trade, records suggest that Muslim slaves organized informal religious communities and established places where they could practice their religion. For instance, in the early 1800s, Bilali (Ben Ali) Muhammad, a slave from Guinea, served as a religious leader for his fellow Muslim slaves, and even established a small mosque on the grounds of his plantation on Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia.
The stories of early Muslim slaves, like Bilali Muhammad, show just how embedded the inalienable right to freedom of religion and establishing places of worship is to the American psyche. Although there have been records of small, “unofficial” mosques built by early slaves, it was not until the start of the twentieth century that the first “official” mosques were built in America’s heartlands to serve the needs of growing Muslim communities. Most often, the early mosques in America were homes away from home in the sense that they were established by a nationally homogenous group as a place where families went to worship and maintain their heritage. This can be said of my own mosque, the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, whose founders came mainly from the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon and established the center in 1954 to serve the needs of the Lebanese Muslim community in Toledo. Many of them were from the same town or village and they therefore had a common language and dialect, common foods, common lifestyle, and common acquaintances.
But as the Toledo Muslim community began to grow and diversify with the arrival of new immigrants, so too did the Toledo mosque.
It was also around this time that American religious life in general began to diversify and expand its activities beyond its primary function of worship. Rather, religion was seen as a mechanism for community building and civic engagement, while houses of worship began to function as community centers to the local populations. The same was true for the growing and rapidly diversifying American Muslim community. This community was no longer concerned with simply establishing Islam in America, but also with solidifying Islam’s status as an American religion. To do so, American Muslim communities began to pursue relations with their non-Muslim neighbors and opened the doors of their mosques to the community at large.
This shift also occurred in my own mosque, the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo (ICGT). As the Toledo Muslim community grew and diversified, the mosque began to shift focus toward promoting inclusion, integration, and acceptance of all Toledo Muslims—regardless of whether they were Arab, South Asian, Afghan, Malaysian, mixed-marriage couples, or university students.
In fact, the ICGT’s mission from the very beginning has been to ingrain ourselves in American culture, and to not isolate ourselves from our neighbors and the surrounding communities.
The ICGT has continued to evolve with American society by assigning women to pivotal roles in its operation. This was reflected when the ICGT elected me as its first woman president in 2001, which made me the first woman president of a mosque in the United States. Still, I was shocked when a member of the ICGT told me that I should not accept my nomination for president because it was “un-Islamic” for a mosque to have a woman president. However, I knew that his argument had no basis in the Qur’an or Islamic teachings of gender equality. So, I accepted the nomination for president in 2001 and was elected by a slim majority, after which the gender issue was set aside and life went on. When my story of becoming the first woman president of a mosque became newsworthy, I was heartened to see that the bar was raised by Dr. T. O. Shanavas when he wrote in his January 2001 editorial in the Center’s magazine, the Monitor:
I am happy that we, the members of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, set in motion the beginning of the end of misogyny.
Contrary to what some may have expected, lightning did not strike the dome, the community did not disintegrate. We simply followed the same trajectory as other religious communities in America who have allowed women to occupy leadership roles. It is no wonder that many Muslim women in America see themselves as continuing the journey of the suffragettes. All we want is to contribute to the greater Muslim community and serve as active members in our mosques. This is why I am so proud that the ICGT Council has elected two other women as president since 2001, making me an anomaly no longer. Dr. Mahjabeen Islam served as president in 2012 and Dr. Nadia Ashraf-Moghal is the current president of the center. I was even elected a second time in 2013 and was able to serve my community for another three years. It makes me so proud that the youth of the center are growing up in an Islamic center that respects the contributions of all. Several young ladies have even told me that I’m a role model in their lives. What greater compliment can one get or hope to ever be given? Answer: None. It is the best compliment ever!
Unfortunately, some traditions have restricted Muslim women’s ability to follow the same path, and have isolated women in the mosques and community. While I do recognize that change is difficult to accept and implement, and it is human nature to resist it, our history has shown that change occurs when women are involved in the decision-making process. Because of this, the ICGT has purposely and intentionally lived the equality that Islam brought to all Muslims, particularly women. Its prayer space has a 30-inch-high movable divider between the men’s and women’s sections that are lateral to each other. The women are not relegated to a balcony or distant room while the men are in the main prayer room. In common parlance, the Islamic Center walks the walk of equality of and dignity for women. At the beginning of the Eid prayers the president traditionally gives a short talk of the events of the past year, or plans for the coming year; an unusual scene indeed: a woman speaking in front of men and women in the prayer room.
To further adhere to our mission of inclusion and openness, the ICGT is proactive in introducing Islam, its culture and heritage, to the community at large in an effort to promote interfaith understanding and accommodation. One way the center is doing so is through our Visiting Scholars Program that hosts speakers for a public lecture series on topics of interest to Muslims and non-Muslims. These lectures are free and open to the public, and have previously invited Muslim and non-Muslim men and women to present on social, religious, legal, and scientific topics. Most recently, the center hosted a noted Catholic priest who gave a lecture titled “Violence and Religion” to a sold-out audience. Usually, thirty to forty percent of the attendees of our visiting scholars programs are from the non-Muslim community. All lectures are followed by a reception in the center’s social hall which allows guests to mix, mingle, and get to know us. Oftentimes, our guests will say, “This is my first time in a mosque and I’m so glad I came. You folks are so friendly and welcoming.”
Our most popular community outreach event among Muslims and non-Muslims is the center’s highly anticipated annual summer International Festival, which includes a main tent that houses food booths representing the many cultures of the ICGT. It is a wonderful multicultural event: the men’s Seniors Active Club serves Arabic coffee and lemonade; the Lebanese women make fresh bread on the saj, frying zalabe; members from Brazil make coxina, fried bananas; Palestinians make shawarma; Pakistanis cook biriyani and serve mango ice cream; Saudi Arabians provide dates; and Turks offer sweets and tea, to name only a very few. The camel ride always has a long line, the petting zoo and bouncy house are favorites of the little ones, and our full-time school sponsors a children’s tent with face painting, balloons, and arts and crafts to paint. This event is not only a fundraiser, but a fabulous public relations opportunity, especially when the public tours the center and views its cultural exhibits.
All of these reasons have caused the Islamic Center to enjoy its growth and the diversity of its membership. It attracts those with a progressive view of Islam and a vision of what can be. We have learned to coexist with our fellow Muslims despite our ethnic and racial diversity. In order to survive and thrive in this small world, mosques must transition from houses of worship to community centers. In addition to holding Friday prayers, mosques have to meet the social and educational needs of their members.
To meet this need, they must provide Sunday school classes and lectures for those who are not able to attend on Friday, or whose children are not enrolled in the full-time Islamic school. The center has done so by organizing biannual teacher workshops where experts present on the basics of Islam, Islamic history and culture, and other topics. This program has far-reaching effects because each teacher sees 75 to 100 students in a school year, meaning the center’s workshop potentially influences 6,000 to 8,000 young people. It is my sincere belief that mosques in America are duty-bound to meet the social needs of their youth to help them to develop a positive identity as both Muslims and Americans.
Although some public figures have recently suggested that all American mosques should be closed because they cause “radicalization” and encourage “extremism,” examples like the ICGT prove that this could not be further from the truth. Even more so, a recent survey of over 500 American
Muslims conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), reveals there is absolutely no correlation between frequent mosque attendance and attitudes toward violence against civilians. The survey also notes that frequent mosque attendance“is linked with higher levels of civic engagement. Muslims who regularly attend mosques are more likely to work with their neighbors to solve community problems, be registered to vote, and are more likely to plan to vote.”
So, to discredit this public rhetoric of Islamophobes and extremists, American Islamic centers need to preserve their right to worship and promote inclusion and openness as active American citizens. In this rapidly evolving world, mosques must make accurate information about Islam easily available to Muslims and non-Muslims. Isolationism is no longer an option for American Muslim communities; in fact, it is a recipe for disaster.