Nation & World

Muslims grapple with their place in Trump's America

The community began in Cedar Rapids 82 years ago

John Richard/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Asma Ali speaks with other women during a discussion on Saturday of issues related to Islamophobia and the election of Donald Trump. The Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids hosted the community potluck and discussion.
John Richard/Los Angeles Times/TNS Asma Ali speaks with other women during a discussion on Saturday of issues related to Islamophobia and the election of Donald Trump. The Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids hosted the community potluck and discussion.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — On a church-lined street, not far from the cornfields that define the region, Syrian, Indian and Somalian families trickled into a white building topped with a blue minaret. They were full of questions and praying for answers.

“This is a wake-up call,” Ramsey Ali, a 29-year-old graduate student, told the crowd of 50 gathered at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids. “We have to do something.”

These heartland Muslims, who belong to one of the oldest Muslim communities in the United States, had gathered in search of relief and unity. Instead, they found themselves just as divided as the rest of the nation.

Since Donald Trump’s election, dozens of mosques have hosted emergency forums similar to the one held here this past Saturday, trying to calm congregations fearful and confused over their prospects under his presidency.

Top imams have convened conference calls and strategized with civil rights groups over what many see as the inevitable assaults on their faith. Some Islamic groups cautiously have vowed to work with the new president, while others have called on him to repudiate his statements on Islam — a faith he just months ago said “hates” Americans.

In Cedar Rapids, the debate over life under Trump has taken on extra meaning. Muslims, who number about 5,000 in Linn County, are a small minority in the region of 218,000 people, yet they are deeply ingrained in its history.

The community dates to the early 1900s, when small groups of Muslims and Christians immigrated from what is now Lebanon. They worked in grocery stores and local industries, and saved to build a two-story social club that opened in 1934 near downtown.

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The Muslims also used it as a mosque and in 1971 built a larger building, where the community met last week.

The original mosque, called the Mother Mosque, is used for special events and stands in a neighborhood just west of the Cedar River that last week was scattered with Trump-Pence signs. Around the mosque, signs proclaim it as a state landmark.

Before Trump was elected — with the help of a victory in Iowa — he had at different times vowed to ban Muslims from immigrating, said he was open to government spying on certain mosques and once said he “absolutely” would have a registry of all Muslims. Since his win, civil rights groups have raised alarms about a jump in attacks on Muslims and other minorities across the country by Americans emboldened by the new presidency.

Some Trump supporters also have been hurt in scuffles.

At Cedar Rapids’s Islamic center — where about 150 people usually attend weekly Friday prayers — families streamed in on Saturday with their children for an event titled “Raising a Family in the Times of Fear.” It ostensibly was a potluck dinner and slideshow presentation about how to talk to children about fears of Islam.

It was led by Ali, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Iowa. In actuality, it was group therapy for adults and high schoolers in shock over the election and wondering about their future.

As congregants sat at tables in front of a projector, eating rice pilaf and kebabs, Ali presented a series of data points and guides. They covered anti-Muslim violence, mental health among Muslims and civil rights resources.

But mostly, he peppered them with questions about their state of mind. The group talked for hours as it gradually dwindled in size, interrupted only by the recorded sounds of the call to prayer over the mosque speakers.

“If we want to see a change of the attitude of the non-Muslims about the Muslims in Iowa, it will not happen with us staying in our homes, within our cubicles at work or within this masjid,” said Hala Azmeh, a 47-year-old Syrian American schoolteacher who runs the mosque’s education committee. “The only way that it will work is if we go out. Allah has chosen for us to live within America for a purpose. Until we fulfill that, that stigma of Muslims are scary people will not go away.”

Ali asked what led to Trump’s victory.

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“You know, everyone keeps saying his win is from racism from white people and people that hate Islam. Not everyone who supports him is a bigot. My neighbor supported Trump. He had a sign in his yard,” said Mokhtar Sadok, a 51-year-old Tunisian American engineer. “He knows we’re Muslim. We’re friendly.”

“No, I think it’s definitely the white people. I work with them,” an Indian-American woman whispered..

“The best way to help ourselves is to help others,” said Brittanie Shah, a 31-year-old white convert to Islam who is a teacher in North Liberty. “Part of me is like, ‘People should really rally behind us,’ but were we rallying around other minority groups before?”

Her husband, Faraz Shah, suggested an easier way to make allies.

“I’m from conservative southwestern Indiana. After 9/11, we began to do international food fairs to get people to meet Muslims. We could try that here,” he said.

Those gathered on Saturday wondered how much President Trump would be like candidate Trump when it comes to Muslims.

Trump largely has remained silent on Islam since his election and, in the last months of it, had began to soften some of his positions. His ban on Muslim immigration, announced last year, later morphed into an “extreme vetting” of would-be immigrants. After he said in March that Islam “hates” Americans, a spokeswoman said he meant to speak only about “radical Islam.”

Noor Azmeh, who wears a hijab, said she thought the group was too negative.

“I have the fear and anxiety of walking down the street,” she said. “But there are so many people are out there who are so nice to us.

“Me and my mom have been in the store and there are random people who just stare at us, and they’ll find a way to somehow just come to say hi to us. They’ll ask us how we are doing. It happens at Wal-Mart, it happens wherever you go.”

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It’s happened in the days after the election, when three pots of flowers showed up at the mosque’s front door with messages of encouragement, and a civil rights lawyer dropped by and left his business card. At the Mother Mosque, someone had left a fruit basket with oranges, strawberries and chocolate bars after election night.

Tucked into the stems of a bouquet of yellow carnations, a notecard had a message for the Muslims.

“You are loved. Our country is stronger & better with you in it,” it said. “Do not live in fear, there are loving people all around you!”

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