“A Muslim is speaking at the Democratic Convention! Musa, come down!” my mother yelled over the noisy TV speakers. I left the comfort of my room and trudged down the carpeted stairs to meet my entire family relaxing on the beige sofas in front of the lit television. Next to the CNN logo, commonplace on my TV screen in the past year of contentious campaigning, I read the bolded banner: “Khizr Khan: Father of Deceased Muslim U.S. Soldier.” I noticed the anxiety in the room was becoming palpable; everyone knew the significance of this speech. This man was a quintessential example of a Muslim whose allegiance was undivided, an image that we all were so desperate for after the words “Islam” and “Terrorism” became so intertwined that many would see them as interchangeable. Above the text, a suited, brown man with balding black hair next to presumably his wife wearing a sky blue hijab was emphatically gesturing his hand forward. Who knew that two people that could easily pass as frequent visitors to my local mosque would be center stage in the American political sphere?
“Donald Trump. You’re asking Americans to trust you with their future,” Mr. Khan declared, which prompted my mother to look up from her cup of tea at the television. After a brief pause, he continued, “Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution?” Applause instantly erupted in the Philadelphia Convention Center, to which Khan responded by reaching into his left suit pocket and pulling out a compact, dark-blue book. “I will—I will gladly lend you my copy,” he added, now holding out his pocket-sized copy of the constitution, which incited an even greater acclamation for the parents of a fallen American hero. Several “U.S.A., U.S.A.” chants emerged out of the raucous cheers for the two Pakistani-American immigrants.
As I sat beside my family proudly watching the welcoming scene, I wondered when my religion became such a focal point in American Political dialogue. Islam had some sort of negative connotation that indelibly marked it, and I had never done anything but accept it. My family was like Khan’s, patriotic Americans and Muslims. When did the two start to diverge in public thought?
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Nothing offers more insight into what Islam is more than witnessing its ritual of worship, which Muslims around the world have ingrained in their lives for millennia.
The sun illuminated the insides of the trailer, piercing through the cracks of the overhead covering which added a reddish tinge to the carpet decorated with designs of the holy Kaaba. Some attendees were dressed in traditional clothing, comprised of long, ankle-length tunics of various colors, but most were wearing typical attire: jeans and a t-shirt—like anyone you would see on the street. Bilal Mosque, named after Bilal ibn Rabah, one of the most notable sahabas, or companions, of Prophet Muhammad, is one of the most popular mosques in the Portland Muslim community. It was Friday, or as Muslims call it, Jummah, the obligatory day for prayer.
We all gathered row by row in the air conditioned trailer. Tens of socks per row pressed against the carpet surface adorned with designs of the holy Kaaba in front. Conversation was still alive, momentarily, when the adhan, the traditional call to prayer, abruptly started bouncing around the smooth walls. Arabic echoed across the now silent room, where the only audible sound was my own breathing. Transitioned from jovial and care-free to reticent and focused, the Imam recited the adhan effortlessly, hitting each orthodox vocal inflection infallibly. In the background, contrasting with the euphonious sounds performed in the name of Islam, cries from a child emerged on my right. Although one may think the raucous sound would puncture the holy blanket that covered the house of worship, no one even batted an eye. Surely, these individuals all gathered in serenity is not what you see on the news when Islam is brought up. There are over 1,500 of these mosques all over the nation (“Islam in America”). Unlike ISIS, Boko Haram, or the Taliban, these mosques consist of real Muslims. American Muslims.
“I am confident that extremism will subside,” a male visitor at the mosque said. “Islam is too great of a religion to be ruined by a couple of idiots. You can see these idiots in every religion, but no one lets them all of a sudden become that religion. They are outcasts, like ISIS, like the KKK,” he continued.
“Islam will soon be—this is backed by statistics—the largest religion in the world. We have a responsibility, an obligation, to behave justly with everyone, regardless of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” said a female in her 20s, wearing a light pink hijab. She continued, “Hopefully, consistently treating other groups with respect will eradicate the stigma of evil terrorism that someone might associate with Islam.”
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The president of this mosque, Shahriar Ahmed, an Intel Engineer in Beaverton, sees 9/11 as a key turning point for American Islam. “For Muslims, 9/11 was a wake-up call to get up and be engaged,” he said in a 2011 interview. “If it hadn’t come about, we wouldn’t have engaged as much as we have. Not that we didn’t want to, but it would have been easier to think about our own families, our own children, our own community.”
I invited him over to my house where we discussed his perspective on Islam in America as the president of the mosque. Short and built, he entered my home. His hair’s gray-silvery hue was juxtaposed with the jet black jacket he wore, even though it was hot out.
“I’m an uncompromising frickin Muslim,” he told me defiantly. Mr. Ahmed characterizes himself as a “short little brown guy.” Although he is from Bangladesh originally, he underscored throughout the conversation how he purposely tries to integrate into American culture and not “just talk to the Bangladeshis or Indians that constantly huddle at the gym.” He added, “I’ll talk to the two white guys, and all the Bangladeshi and Indian people will look at me as some sort of outsider. Breaking barriers is key to this stuff, but at the beginning, it’s one of the hardest parts. Now, I talk to those two white guys, Pat and Steve, every day.”
The conversation turned to Islamic values in America. “We have to discover the values that made Islam what it was,” he told me. “We have lost those values because in many parts of the world, Muslims have not been able to provide solutions to their own problems. So then you start blaming others. You then take the route that will never produce solutions by being violent. Unless Muslims find their own solutions and own up to the fact that in Egypt, I don’t have democracy because I messed up. Saudi Arabia, so much money, so much, and yet they don’t have a single viable university,” he said.
Muslims do need to take responsibility for problems they have created, with regimes and governments that infringe on an individual’s fundamental human rights. Mr. Ahmed explained how Muslims can eliminate this stigma: “Just engage. Almost every Jummah, there are non-Muslims there. A neighbor four or five houses down the street, she runs a preschool or something, and she’s asking if our mosque can be a center point if, say, an earthquake happens. Why’d she say that? Well, she has come to some of our open houses, and we are so friendly—so nice. Those are some of the things we need to keep doing.”
I asked him about the television pundits who effectively bash Islam for a living. “There are 1.2 billion Muslims. There are two to three million Muslims in the U.S,” he said. “These right wing pundits — these same pundits existed during World War II in Germany and they took six million Jews and they took them in the gas chambers. Islam has survived for 1500 years…We still pray five times a day, without a pope, without a church, without any institution. Think about it.”
“There is something else in Islam, and it cannot be evil,” he continued. After a long pause, he said, “The evil that has been done by Muslims has driven Muslims out of Islam.” Mr. Ahmed went on a tangent, continuing his diatribe against the right wing pundits: “Maybe you pundits should engage with us, and that is good for America. Good for business…good for stocks,” he mockingly added. “Good for trade or what have you. Pundits are pundits. These kind of pundits, history has seen them, and the biggest one was Hitler.”
I have always thought Muslims could unite with other religious minority groups persecuted in the past to overcome the societal barrier that we have been burdened with due to Jihadism. Mr. Ahmed had an intriguing story about a Jewish Rabbi he worked with for Interfaith Outreach Matters. “So he talks to me and he tells me, ‘Do you know why Jews always are front and center for human rights and religious freedom here?’ I said no, I mean this thought has never really occurred to me. And he said, ‘Our history has taught us that these right wingers always start with someone, and they say does it work? Does this demonization work? Let me go to the next group, Does it work? Because ultimately they want to come to us!’”
The nature of discrimination appears cyclical, but I always wonder what Muslims can do to bring it to an end. Merely saying that “Islam is good!” will not exactly alter public opinion. Mr. Ahmed clarified that he fully embraces American values: “I am a person of faith. Do I have the Islamic perspective on issues? Yes. But the key Islamic perspective is to never judge. Prophet Muhammad’s uncle never became a Muslim. Did he judge? Never.”
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Someone who would certainly be aware of the Islamic perspective on virtually anything was the local Imam, an individual who leads prayers in a mosque and serves as a religious and spiritual scholar to the community. I had met him before at various community events where he would give sermons about the beauties and stories associated with the Quran, but this would mark the first time I had an actual conversation with Imam Toure.
I was standing outside in a parking lot centered in the midst of the grassy, Bilal Mosque grounds. The only thing in my proximity was the glowing lamp post when a tall, slim figure materialized in the brisk air. Beaming with glee, he beckoned me to enter his house, conveniently situated adjacent to a prayer hall. Although he is middle aged, nearing 50, Imam Toure appeared no older than 40. His wisdom, charitable efforts, and weekly sermons make him sort of a celebrity in the eyes of many in the Portland Muslim Community. As I would later learn, even President Obama was so captivated by him that he specifically asked to speak with him privately over personal matters. Here I was, a sixteen year old kid who just had some questions, entering his one story abode, where only he resides. The living room we sat in had a comforting fragrance which would completely ease the mind of a wailing baby. Beside the middle table replete with books of philosophy and poetry lay a sofa on one side and a polished, wooden chair on the other. I sat on the sofa, which felt silky and appeared spotless.
Mamadou Toure, or as many call him, Imam Toure, is a seventh generation Imam born in Dakar, Senegal. He is polylingual, fluent in French, Arabic, English, and his native tongue Wolof. I wondered if he felt pressured in any sense to become an Imam, knowing that his six forefathers had already cast a long standing precedent. “I would not say that I was pressured,” he said. “I wanted to study other religious systems to compare them with Islam and make a choice. It was very much a personal and individual quest for truth in educating myself in comparative religion.”
The very idea of an Imam, of all people, even implying that he at one point had doubts about his status as a Muslim, astonished me. I clarified whether he came into his spiritual quest with an open mind in religion, not putting Islam on a pedestal. “Absolutely,” he insisted, nodding and chuckling at my bewilderment. “It was at Soborne College in Paris that I completed my undergraduate studies and Master’s degree with the thesis: ‘The Encounter between the Individual and the Divine in different Religious Systems.’ I went and lived in a Buddhist community, in Egypt, in a Christian community in France. I lived with seven different religious communities in total, studying them as an academic…I saw the complete system of belief.”
Imam Toure, interested in the “mechanics of the human mind,” went to Georgetown, where he acquired a degree in Clinical Psychology. Besides being an Imam, he works as a counselor, helping underprivileged youth and adults in the Portland community get their lives back on track. “I pride myself in not only my religion, but more importantly my actions as a Muslim. The beauty of Islam—because it is about principles and values—is that when you talk about truthfulness, compassion, generosity, you are talking about the language that is at the very heart of Islam. At my work, these values definitely can be used in application.”
I asked him about the Islamophobia Portland has experienced in the wake of the 2016 election. “Absolutely, it has increased,” he responded. “Not only in Oregon but nationwide. There has been many incidents that have taken place here. Me as an imam…I have had to meet Pat Garrett, the Washington County Sheriff, and Mayor Doyle, in order to create a process to solve this problem.” Pointing out the side window, he said, “Women have been attacked in the parking lot. People have gotten spit at. The reason was the anti-Islamic rhetoric of Trump. People feel like he has given them permission and a license to do what they want.”
“The values in Islam enhance the values in this country,” he continued. “There is not one single area where there is a contradiction between Islam and American values. There is a verse in Quran that says Obey Allah, obey his messenger, and those in authority over you, which would be the United States Government. You have an obligation to obey.”
I wondered how he thought Muslims could try to mend this disconnect between being American and Muslim to the average person. “Portland is one of the leaders in interfaith dialogue. Still, we as Muslims are not engaged enough in social actions, like organizing soup kitchens for homeless shelters. We can show our neighbors all Muslims are not terrorists; they are kind. In times like these where there is so much tearing apart, I also believe it is sacred work that people of all faiths come together and try to bring light and peace.”
I often hear religious Muslims emphasize the rituals associated with Islam: praying five times a day, attending Jummah (Friday Prayer at the Mosque), memorizing the Quran. However, as the discussion progressed, I thought less and less about these endless rules forcing all Muslims into one box but instead the consistent theme that his insights echoed throughout the past two hours: the power of the individual. “Islam is more focused on values and principles than rituals. It is the light that allows you to see your way through life with clarity,” he said. Statistically, Muslims agree with Imam Toure, with 69 percent believing that “working for justice and equality in society” is an essential part of being a Muslim, along with believing in God and following the Quran.
With all the negative press coverage on Islam, I constantly struggled to navigate being a Muslim and an American. I never realized that the solution to prevent Islam from becoming an interminable American political talking point at the expense of 1.2 billion people was, at its heart, a search for self-identity, not religion. Islam has impacted the lives of the two individuals I interviewed in vastly different ways, owing to the fact that they are two entirely different people. Mr. Ahmed told me he was most struck by the blessings he believes adhering to the Islamic faith has given him and his family, while Imam Toure sees the beauty behind the philosophy of the belief system—the sense of individuality and the personal connection to the divine—in Islam. The best way to communicate your religion is to make it personal, and Islam fundamentally is a personal religion. Therefore, to know how Islam impacts you is to know yourself and your ideals, which I still am figuring out after sixteen years of pondering. Islam is more than just a belief system, it is the lens I choose to see through in order to impact the world for the better. Believing in the tenets of Islam does not even scratch the surface of what it means for me to be Muslim. As Imam Toure said during our discussion, “Islam is not a religion about God, it is a religion about the human being.”
Musa Tahir is currently a Senior at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, Oregon. As a young Muslim American, Tahir often reads articles from non-Muslim Americans about religion’s place in the American cultural sphere.