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Imam of Cedar Rapids mosque aims to change American outlook on Islam

Hassan Selim recounts journey from Egypt to Cedar Rapids

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Hassan Selim’s religion stands at a crossroads.

That’s how the 28-year-old Egyptian-born religious leader of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids views the current tension surrounding Muslims in the United States and around the world.

As Imam, the worship leader in a mosque, Selim is attempting to teach his congregation how to be comfortable with their faith, he said. At the same time, he also is teaching them to use their religion as tools without creating a shell around themselves — something members of the public may misinterpret as sinister, he said.

“What I’m trying to do is find and define for my congregation an understanding of Islam that allows them to feel comfortable being both Muslims and Americans,” Selim said. “Unfortunately right now, there are many voices saying they can’t be both or both are at war.”

The mosque in Cedar Rapids hosts a mixed congregation of as many as 4,000 members of multigenerational American-born families and recent immigrants.

“Throughout history, someone has always been at the forefront of issues. Now it’s just (Muslims’) turn,” said Paul Habhab, Cedar Rapids resident and a Muslim who attends prayer at the Islamic Center.

Selim, who also is vice president of the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County, is not attempting to prove anyone wrong about Islam. Instead, he hopes to show others that Islam and America could benefit one another in an inclusive relationship.

“I don’t have the idea that I can just stay in my mosque or monastery or place of worship and ask God to make a change happen,” Selim said. “I believe you’ve got to be the change.”

Selim, who was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1987, began studying at age 6 at Al Azhar, one of the oldest Islamic education institutes in the Sunni-Muslim world. While in college, Selim received a scholarship to spend two months at the University of Leeds in England.

Having studied traditional Islam, Selim said he hopes he can offer “insight from the inside” to those who may have less-informed sources on what the Muslim world looks like.

“I feel like I have something to offer,” Selim said. “Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Always having this idea in mind helped me go through the things in life that have brought me here, even though most of these things were not really planned, like meeting my wife.”

After he returned from England, Selim met Alida while she was studying Arabic in Egypt. The two married in 2010.

Shortly after, when Selim was 23, long standing tensions in Egypt erupted into a revolution.

On Jan. 25, 2011, thousands marched in Cairo and called for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, who had been president for three decades. Selim was among the thousands gathered in Tahrir Square calling for “basic human rights,” Selim said.

Selim and three friends spent the following 18 days in a field hospital, documenting the violence of the uprisings, coordinating with media outlets to pass along information, and to communicate the demands of those within the square.

Selim said he never feared for his life during that time, but believed he was helping his country.

“I felt like I wasn’t doing this for myself, I felt like I was doing this for the entire country,” Selim said.

Mubarak was removed from office in February 2011, and Mohammed Morsi was elected in June 2012. However, in July 2013, the Egyptian army removed Morsi and suspended the Egyptian constitution.

In the developments following those events, and with his first child on the way, Selim said he was fearful that Egypt was not a safe place for a young family. The family moved to Alida Selim’s hometown of Cedar Rapids in February 2012.

Shortly after the move, Selim applied for the position of imam at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids, taking the position in April 2012.

Today, Selim said his life’s work is to help others understand Islam and America is not at war. This is something he does for his two young daughters and for his congregation.

“I want be actively contributing to their lives in a way that makes that gives them this identity that allows them to live a good life,” Selim said.

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