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Right at home: U.S. mosques are often more Middle America than Middle East

Tucked into the corner of a series of industrial parks in West Valley City, the Khadeeja Islamic Center’s golden dome and minaret might strike some passersby as out of place, even foreign to this American suburb where the dominant architectural features are grey box stores and white church steeples.

To be sure, the Islamic Center exterior looks arabesque. Completed in 2002, the mosque “was built to face Mecca” in Saudi Arabia, the center of the Islamic world, explains Muhammed Shoayb Mehtar, the imam who leads the thriving Islamic Center of Greater Salt Lake whose main gathering place is the Khadeeja mosque in West Valley City.

Yet what goes on inside the mosque is just as much Middle America as it is Middle East. The several hundred Muslims who gather here each Friday — the Muslim holy day — come together to worship, pray and socialize with their fellow believers, not unlike churchgoers and other believers across the country.

The Khadeeja Islamic Center also serves as an important gateway into American culture for this very international community, whose regular attendees hail from 30 to 35 different countries. Before services, and at community festivals, adults converse in English, the communal tongue in such a diverse population. Newly arrived immigrants learn about American ways from native-born or long-time American residents. School aged-children get tutoring help to prepare them for the rigors of American colleges. And once a year, the whole community goes to the Lagoon Amusement Park, a summer rite of passage for many Utah families.

In fact, Imam Mehtar, a slender, fair-skinned man who sports a bushy beard and a long flowing robe, embodies the transitional nature of many of his fellow immigrant Muslims who gather each Friday at Khadeeja: they retain the key elements of the cultures of their countries of birth — their religious identity in particular — while they create a new identity as Americans. With an accent inflected by his South African origin and his American education at the University of Southern California, Mehtar says that in the mosque, worshippers not only learn how to be good Muslims, but also how to be good Muslims in America. “Whether we’re Pakistani, Somali or Saudi, we’ve come to this country because we want a better life for ourselves. And that is what happens in America, including for (members of) our faith.”

Since 9/11, no religious community’s place in the United States has been more hotly contested than that of American Muslims. From fights over the construction of mosques in places as varied as rural Tennessee and lower Manhattan, to congressional hearings over fears of “homegrown” Muslim radicals, many Americans express ambivalence to the idea of welcoming Muslims as their neighbors. For the Muslim community in America however, this ambivalence is not shared. In fact, most American Muslims feel right at home in America. And because America guarantees their right to “choose to be religious in the manner they wish,” explains Mehtar, perhaps they are even more at home in America than in many predominately Islamic countries.

On Fridays at 1 p.m., the Khadeeja Islamic Center’s parking lot fills up quickly with well-used minivans, as well as late-model, luxury sedans. There are a handful of yellow cabs too. But because Muslims in America are the second most highly educated religious group in the country (a recent Gallup poll found that 40 percent of them have college degrees, compared to 61 percent of Jews and 29 percent of Americans overall), Muslims are not just America’s cabbies. They are also the nation’s college professors, doctors and engineers. And this isn’t just the case for Muslim men. Muslim women achieve college education at even higher rates than their male counterparts.

Muslims in America are not just economically diverse, but also racially diverse.

“The first major movement of Muslims to America came with the slave trade,” explained Diana Eck, a professor and director of Harvard’s “Pluralism Project” dedicated to the study of America’s growing religious diversity. And before the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act opened America up to large-scale immigration from Asia and Africa, Muslims in America were predominantly black. Today, while African Americans still make up the largest category of Muslims (35 percent), American Muslims are the most racially diverse religious community in the nation, according to Gallup; roughly two-thirds of adults are born outside the U.S., with significant populations from Asia and the Middle East. Twenty-eight percent are white.

This racial diversity is on full display when the Khadeeja Islamic Center’s men and boys, toddlers and grandfathers and all ages in between, gathered in the mosque’s large main hall one Friday last month. “To avoid unwanted distraction when the focus should be on God,” Mehtar explained, women and girls sit in an upstairs classroom “three-fourths as big as the main room.”

Hundreds of African American, Asian, Middle Eastern, as well as blond-haired, blue-eyed Muslims entered the mosque’s front door, removed their shoes and performed the “wudu”— the ceremonial washing of hands, arms and face. They then sat on the mosque’s carpeted floor, “because we believe in equality in Islam,” explained Tariq Nossier, a former president of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake who now greets visitors at the mosque’s entrance. In dress as varied as their ethnic make-up — seersucker suits and ties, long white cloaks, even a Chicago Bulls basketball jersey and jeans — the community faced the mihrab, the niche at the center of the mosque’s eastern wall indicating the direction of Mecca.

They listened to Imam Mehtar give a sermon on “the flexible nature of Islam” and how best to understand this nature while living out their faith in modern America.

“There are many accusations of Islam and Muslims that they are very inflexible and rigid,” Mehtar explained in English, with Islamic expressions in Arabic peppered throughout the sermon. “But this happens because of lack of knowledge about what Muslims do and why they do it.”

Certainly, here the imam had in mind the close to half of all Americans, who more than a decade after 9/11, believe that the values of Islam are at odds with American values. Earlier this month, chairman of the U.S. House of Represenatives committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., held another in a series of controversial hearings on the dangers of the radicalization of Muslim Americans. Some have said these hearings only serve to foment anti-Muslim violence (in 2010 the FBI reported a nearly 50 percent increase in the numbers of “hate crimes” committed against Muslims). King himself insisted that the hearings were necessary because, he claims, “almost 90 percent of the terrorist crimes are carried out by the Muslim community.”

“These politicians are doing this to stir up fear, for their political gain,” Mehtar said in response to King’s hearings. “With 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, if only one percent of those (who King) thinks are terrorists were so, I don’t even think I’d even be alive to say he’s wrong.”

Yet Mehtar is also critical of “literalist” Muslims — ironically, the group of Islamic fundamentalists whom King and his supports are most afraid of — who assert that Islam is unchangeable. “Brother and sisters,” Mehtar declared during his sermon, “when you insist that Islam is only correct as it was practiced 1,400 years ago … you miss the universality of Islam.”

To illustrate the ability of Islam to adapt to its environment, Mehtar explained to the congregation how a Muslim might go about grilling chicken, an all-American summer pastime. Though the Muslim wants his chicken to be “finger-licking good,” he decides to skip KFC and “only buys his chicken from a certain Islamic store” that has prepared the meat accordance to Islamic dietary dictates. “We have to understand the environment that we’re a part of — in this case, America. And we have to understand what the environment demands and the religion demands and blend them both without sacrificing the values of either.”

Mehtar’s message about how Muslims in his community blend American and Islamic values while staying true to their faith’s core match recent Pew Research Center data that find Muslims in America are highly assimilated. While a slight majority (51 percent) of the American population thinks that Muslims in America want to remain distinct from American culture, most American Muslims (56 percent) say that Muslims want to adopt American customs and ways of life. Even though they say that life has become harder since 9/11, American Muslims are also more likely than the general American public to express satisfaction with national conditions.

Mehtar argues that the United States’ constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion makes America one of the best places in the world to practice Islam. “Muslims come to America not only looking for economic opportunity. We prefer America because unlike even so-called Islamic states, we have the choice to be religious. I prefer to be an imam in America because my speech is not monitored. I can make mistakes and that might have consequences, but it won’t mean I’m thrown in jail.”

Harvard’s Eck would agree. “In the view of many Muslims today, any land where Muslims can live safely and freely because the government is committed to religious freedom is a good place for Muslims to dwell.” In this sense, Eck explains, the “‘Muslim world’ is not somewhere else; Chicago is part of the Muslim world.”

And so is Salt Lake City.

Max Perry Mueller is associate editor of Religion and Politics, a project of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Twitter: maxperrymueller.