Elodie Reed: I learned a lot about Islam –and biases I didn’t know I had

  • Musah Abdallah points to an area that, though covered in snow in January, is a grassy spot he will use to pray during the summertime. Abdallah, who works with clients in the Concord Monitor's distribution room as a Community Bridges direct support provider, often has to improvise on the job when it comes to performing his five prayers a day as a Muslim. ​Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

  • The Bility family, including father Yusuf and son Mohammed (right), mother, Tina, and daughter, Massa (left), and grandmother Massa (out of frame), walk toward their car after Tina was naturalized as a U.S. citizen at U.S. District Court in Concord. Elodie Reed / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 2/19/2017 12:20:12 AM

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous the first time I visited the Concord mosque.

It was a pleasant October afternoon, a Friday, and I attended the prayer service at the Islamic Society of Greater Concord to find out what Muslims thought of the 2016 presidential election.

I planned my outfit that day carefully – long sleeves and pants to cover up – and I asked the mosque president, Hubert Mask, if I should put something over my head. He said there was no need.

After parking outside the East Concord Community Center, I took a deep breath, straightened the scarf around my neck and went inside.

It was relatively empty five minutes before Jum’ah prayers began at 1 p.m., so I took off my shoes where I saw a few others lined up and went looking for Mask. He greeted me with a handshake and showed me into the prayer room downstairs, where his wife, Faizah, offered me a chair to observe from.

Several more women trickled in and took their place on the small prayer rugs angled towards Mecca. The Arabic recitations were unfamiliar to me – I tried to figure out the pattern in which the women stood up, got down on their knees, and then, in the posture so commonly associated with Islam, put their foreheads to the ground, their stocking feet poking out beneath them.

I perked up once the imam began his service, which was delivered in English. I heard ideas familiar to the ones expressed in my own church on Sunday: keeping patience through tribulation and responding to challenges with faith and peace.

They seemed particularly comforting as America navigated its way through the last month of an extremely divisive, anxiety-inducing election.

It wasn’t until the weekend after Nov. 8 that I returned to the mosque. I covered an anti-Trump protest earlier in the day, and after standing in the middle of protesters and counter-protesters shouting at each other over my head in downtown Manchester, the mosque was an oasis of quiet and warmth.

Faizah greeted me with a hug, and the other women smiled as I once again took my seat in the back of the prayer room. I was also welcomed to go upstairs with the men, which I hadn’t realized was allowed.

During a pause between prayers and after the service, I asked women (and men) how they felt about the election’s outcome. Their willingness to be quoted in a newspaper following a week where the Southern Law Poverty Center recorded a spike in bias incidents, including those against Muslims, surprised me.

I was more struck by what Imam Mustafa Akaya told me that night. He said the country’s fears about Islam was partially on himself and other American Muslims for not more clearly conveying who they really were: a people who valued peace. And he wanted to take the opportunities he could to change that.

A day later, I thought more about what the imam said – that certainly sounded like the job of a newspaper if there ever was one. We’re in the business of uncovering truth, digging beneath misconceptions and accurately reflecting our community.

Furthermore, here was an opportunity to get at a question our country has grappled with for years, though especially during the 2016 campaign: Can one both practice Islam and integrate into the broader American community?

The mosque’s board agreed to the project, which entailed me spending time with individuals as they went about their business, outside the mosque.

Once again, I was surprised by people’s willingness to work with me. I visited during Friday prayers in January and gathered around 10 phone numbers.

I had to put this project on hold, though, since I was assigned to cover New Hampshire residents traveling down to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington.

When I returned, there was a noticeable difference in the willingness of my Muslim subjects to appear in the newspaper. I especially struggled to find parents who would let me interview their children about their experience in school. Two families initially said yes to the idea but backed out in the wake of President Trump’s travel ban executive order.

They explained that with so much scrutiny on Muslims in America, they didn’t want to risk their children becoming targets. Honestly, I can’t say I blame them.

Fortunately, four subjects did still want to work on this project with me, and were generous with their time and extremely candid. In addition to generally learning about their background and daily lives, I had some small, personal learning moments, like you don’t walk in front of someone when they’re praying. (Oops.)

Then during an interview with Mustafa Akaya, the imam, about living in America, I asked him how Muslims fit into mainstream culture here.

He answered gracefully, noting that being an American is about being free, and he was using that freedom to express his religious beliefs. But when I recalled that question a few days later, I mentally cringed. Had I suggested being Muslim and American were mutually exclusive things?

Because that’s patently false. There are plenty of American Muslims who have garnered love and respect, and furthermore, have been held up as embodying our culture and ideals. What about boxer Muhammad Ali? Rapper Ice Cube? U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison? One of my favorite NPR reporters, Asma Khalid?

It’s painful to admit your own biases when you have a job that requires you to leave them behind. It’s worse when you didn’t realize they were there in the first place.

The first time I remember hearing the words “Muslim” and “Islam,” they were almost immediately followed by “terrorism,” all in the first days following 9/11. I briefly discussed Islam in a college class and helped put on several interfaith panels there, but really, it wasn’t until several years into my reporting career that I had a one-on-one, thoughtful interaction with a Muslim.

But that’s how I like my information – straight from the source. So here’s what I now know:

The music-like Arabic spoken at the beginning of a service is the call to prayer, called Adhan. The recitations that follow depend on the time of day.

Though there are different interpretations of Islam as with other religions, the one preached in Concord is centered around peace, nonviolence and charity.

Covering clothing is most often associated with Muslim women, but Muslim men are expected to do the same – it’s a sign of respect during prayer.

Like any group including immigrants, there are cultural differences and differing levels of assimilation among the mosque members. Some want to be full-fledged U.S. citizens, others are interested in job opportunities here.

People are people: Everyone I talked to was focused on their family, their jobs and living a good life.

If you’re lucky enough to hang out at the mosque on a night when there’s food, you truly are lucky – and you should try the sticky, sweet, orange spiral-shaped Indian dessert Jalebi.

And unlike most other places of worship that I’ve entered for news stories, when I’m at the mosque, there is no pressure – none – for visitors like myself to partake or develop a personal interest in Islam.

These days, I have no fear or hesitation when visiting the Islamic Society of Greater Concord. I know when I walk through the door, I’ll be welcomed with open arms.

That virtue of unconditional acceptance, one man told me, is what makes him not only a good Muslim, but an American.

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)

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