CEDAR RAPIDS — Early this spring, Taha Tawil laid out a batch of letters — some handwritten, some typed — on a checkered tablecloth in the basement of the old Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids, where he is the imam.
Just a few days earlier and a couple hours to the west, an anonymous letter had been left in the mailbox at the Islamic Center of Des Moines. It was addressed to “the Children of Satan.” Muslims, that letter writer said, should pack their bags and leave because “there’s a new sheriff in town — President Donald Trump.”
The letter went further. Trump, it said, is seeking to “cleanse” America, and to take actions against Muslims similar to “what Hitler did to the Jews.”
But Tawil said he hadn’t received any such negative letters. In fact, he said between November and late March, the Mother Mosque, located on the east side of Cedar Rapids, received more than 100 letters and voicemails, all including messages of allegiance and appreciation for Muslims.
While nuking hunks of homemade baklava in a microwave, Tawil read one example aloud, from someone who urged Muslims in Cedar Rapids to hold strong to their faith. It’s a tumultuous political atmosphere, the letter said, but graciousness will win in the end.
He understood “graciousness,” but shrugged at another word in the letter. “What is ‘tumultuous?’ ” he asked.
WHY CEDAR RAPIDS?
To a large extent, Cedar Rapids has seemed to escape the polarized tone that has riled so many communities since the election.
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The Council on American-Islamic Relations has reported various incidents of vandalism and arson at mosques across the nation in the last few months. But in Cedar Rapids, hundreds of people — from across Iowa — flocked to the Mother Mosque in late March to circle the building in an impressive show of solidarity with the Muslim community, after a woman about an hour and a half west organized the event.
Tawil and his crosstown colleague, Imam Hassan Selim, who leads a larger mosque in Cedar Rapids known as the Islamic Center, have worked hard to integrate their communities into the larger one. Their mosques feature a steady stream of college and high school students eager to visit and learn about Islam. Christian and Jewish religious leaders, meanwhile, and even atheist and agnostic community leaders, have reached out to the imams seeking to learn more about Islam and to partner for events. The Islamic Center, too, has received messages of welcome since January. Even flowers.
Is Cedar Rapids a place where Muslims can thrive socially and religiously — to practice their faith, feel supported, experience fewer incidents of Islamophobia? Or do Cedar Rapids residents of other backgrounds merely coexist with their Muslim neighbors?
The answer lies in the community’s history, Tawil said.
In the early 1900s, Arab Christians emigrated to Cedar Rapids from the Middle East, many of them from Syria. Their Muslim family members and friends followed, Tawil said.
And both groups were accepted.
Before the 1920s, Muslims helped their Christian neighbors build the St. George Orthodox Church on the southeast side of town. While some of these Muslims eventually left for larger cities and industrial jobs, Tawil said, some of those who stayed opened a bevy of grocery stores, gas stations and salons just west of the Cedar River in the Time Check neighborhood. The grocery stores thrived until the 1980s, according to Mark Stoffer Hunter, a Linn County historian.
They sank roots.
“The name of Cedar Rapids as a Muslim community was spread in America,” Tawil said, adding that a sense of tolerance and acceptance were the key factors. “Muslims and the Christians, they were family,” Tawil said.
Muslim leaders felt that the community had grown so much by the late 1920s that a mosque was necessary to preserve their culture, literacy and faith. Christians helped. The Mother Mosque, on Ninth Street NW — the first structure in North America built specifically to be a mosque — opened in 1934.
“That’s why we never had a problem between Muslims and Christians,” Tawil said. “It has been already a relationship of peace, harmony and social community.”
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Tawil himself came to Cedar Rapids in the 1980s from Jerusalem, a city with religious traditions as numerous as its ancient landmarks. He said he found a willingness to engage in interfaith collaboration — similar to his home city — when he arrived as the imam of the Islamic Center. The local community and other faith leaders initiated the contact, Tawil said. “What that means: ‘You are welcome.’ That’s how the bond starts to grow between us.”
In 1996, Tawil became the imam of the Mother Mosque, working to revive the historic worship and community center. Over the years, he tried to expand on the spirit of engagement, co-founding the Linn County Inter-Religious Council and spending so much time outside of the mosque that the Islamic Center’s board of directors asked him to dial it down. He tries still to spend more time at the Mother Mosque, but “without engagement, there’s no commitment,” he said.
FAITH WITH ROOTS
Tawil was in Cedar Rapids at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda, which along with killing so many Americans, increased the fear of Islam. That fear lives on in Cedar Rapids and has sometimes reared its ugly head.
A Muslim man’s unfinished house in Cedar Rapids was vandalized in 2015 and threats and epithets directed at Islam were spray-painted inside. In November 2016, a note taped on a Muslim family’s door in nearby Iowa City, read, “You can all go home now. We don’t want (a racial epithet) and terrorists here. #Trump.”
During the election season, Tawil, a registered Republican, invited the then-presidential candidate Donald Trump to visit the Mother Mosque after Trump’s campaign promises to temporarily ban Muslims from the country and admit only those who have “proven” themselves. He didn’t hear back about the invitation. Tawil said he wanted Trump to see Muslims as a resource, as American citizens and members of communities, and to understand that they, too, care about safety and security.
Tawil understands how fear of Islam comes about, but says he has no time for stereotypes, such as the notion that many Muslims are terrorists.
“Our strategy is just to talk about our faith,” he said. “Facts are facts. Opinions change. We have people in our community who have not ever been to the Middle East and were born in America. It is wrong to generalize.”
And Tawil said he blames fear and political commentary for some of these generalizations. “Nowadays, it is all politics. We are not in politics,” Tawil said of Eastern Iowa Muslims. “We hope people go back to their senses and think about humanity, think about the future and move on. God will judge us all.”
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The majority of visitors to his Mother Mosque are non-Muslims, Tawil said. Even before the election season, there was a steady stream of visitors there, curious to peek inside the oldest mosque is North America. And he likes that. The key to interfaith dialogue is to “get the community to come to the mosque,” Tawil said.
“That’s why they send us letters of love. We put the seeds in good time, not only in the bad time. We were active way before Sept. 11 and way after. Our faith, it has roots. We have confidence that in the Cedar Rapids community, the love is exchanged.”
Tawil urges his small congregation, about 35 families, and Muslims across the nation to interact with the surrounding community, much as Cedar Rapids’ early Muslim community did.
“There are people who are waiting for someone else to do the job,” he said, “and complaining — ‘Why do they hate us?’ And then there are people who are engaged, who are in the community.”
HOW DO YOU REACH PEOPLE?
At the Islamic Center across town, Selim has tried to take this sensibility of outreach and discussion beyond Iowa. In early April he was one of two imams invited to speak at a National Institute for Civil Discourse conference in Washington, D.C. The group was born out of the 2011 Tucson shooting that killed six and injured others, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The goal: figuring out ways to restore civil discourse in the country, Selim said, and part of the meeting focused on interfaith communication.
One conclusion stuck with Selim: For now, he said, people who are reaching out and open to interfaith dialogue are indeed communicating across religious borders. But others are not. Selim said he knows he has to “meet people where they’re at” in their beliefs.
But Selim said he’s left to puzzle over how to reach those who are not trying to know their Muslim neighbors. “Where would be the people that usually don’t get to hear from me,” he asked. “Who are the people that I don’t get to hear from?”
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— “The Promise” is a report from a collaboration between The Gazette, the Monitor in McAllen, Texas, the Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio, and The Big Roundtable. Journalists are sharing tales of people in their communities as they tell of three cities in the age of Trump. Catch up at thebigroundtable.com.