Donald and the Imam

During the U.S. presidential elections, Muslims are depicted (almost) always as terrorists. In Iowa — in the heart of the United States — two imams are fighting to counter this negative image. One of them even extended an invitation to Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump to visit his mosque.

By Ilja Tüchter, foreign editor of Die Rheinpfalz

“Donald J. Trump is demanding a total and complete shutdown of the entry of Muslims into the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on. We have no choice. We have no choice.” (From an election campaign speech by the Republican presidential candidate on December 7, 2015, in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina)

The blue dome of the minaret with the gilded half-moon rises up in late fall into the almost turquoise-colored afternoon sky. The real moon is already visible; it, too, is sickle-shaped. Imam Hassan Selim is waiting at the entrance of the Islamic Center on First Avenue in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The 29-year-old has a U.S. flag pinned to the lapel of his grey suit jacket.

With a Minaret: The Islamic Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 2,000 Muslims live in the region. 3.3 million live in the U.S., representing 1% of the total population. Photo by Ilja Tüchter.

Born in Cairo, the imam has only been living in this town of 130,000 residents in the heart of the Middle West in the United States for five years. Yet his English has almost the perfect local accent. “I listen to the radio a lot to practice,” says Hassan, smiling. He also leaves no room for doubt that he preaches “American Islam” here. He has to do that, simply because the 2,000 Muslims in this region come from all corners of the Islamic world: from Syria, India, Sudan, or like Hassan, who is married to an American he met in Cairo, from Egypt. They were married within two weeks of getting to know each other, he tells us happily. “Our parents thought we were crazy.”

Since Hassan is young himself and knows what it’s like to come to the U.S. from an Islamic country, he has a good connection to the young people in the local Muslim community “Sure, the Salafists are a threat,” the imam says, not denying that his community faces challenges, especially in his youth work, or that Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, uses this as ammunition in his campaign. But nobody from Cedar Rapids has traveled to Syria or Iraq to join the jihad yet. “We have gotten the young people involved and have organized a lot of specific charitable projects with them. That gives them the feeling that our Islam can make a difference, that it does some good. And, in the course of this, they meet people of other faiths.” Hassan works with Christians and Jews and he is the vice president of the city’s Interfaith Council.

“Large segments of the Muslims population in America carry a lot of hatred against Americans in their hearts. It is obvious to anybody that the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why is something we will have to determine.” (Trump campaign press statement from December 7, 2015).

To be Muslim does not mean living like you did 1,400 years ago, Imam Hassan emphasizes while explaining his [interpretation of] Islam in the rather dreary assembly hall with long tables. He says that his religion is under observation, that everything he does is politically charged. Because the view of many Americans is that Islam goes hand in hand with terror.

“Sometimes people will look at you strangely, for sure. And maybe people are also afraid of Muslims. But then I say, let’s think about what we can do to change that. We’re doing something wrong if we are acting out of fear.” Only one in two Americans has ever met a Muslim, Hassan quotes from a survey. To change that, the Islamic Center invites people of other faiths to celebrate Thanksgiving with them.

At such gatherings, residents can see that the Islamic community in Cedar Rapids is just like their community. The imam is paid by the local members of the community parishioners. He does not accept money from other sources, Hassan emphasizes. The donations are sufficient to pay for children from families that are less well-off to go to the Center’s Montessori school. The members of the community are often successful immigrants: doctors, engineers, and lawyers.

The Muslim community in Cedar Rapids was something like a nucleus for American Islam. The first Muslims came as early as the 19th century, in 1888, from the Beqaa Valley in what was then the Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire. Orthodox Christians from there were the first to immigrate to America. When they sent letters home saying that there was religious freedom and work in Cedar Rapids, entire Muslim clans started moving across the Atlantic.

“The Muslims and Christians from Syria became much closer here than they had ever been in the Middle East,” Imam Taha Tawil tells us. The bearded man who was born in Palestine is Imam Hassan’s mentor. He was the one who founded the Cedar Rapids Interfaith Council. Taha is sitting in the slightly messy basement of another mosque in the city called the Mother Mosque. It was built in 1935 and is the oldest free-standing Islamic house of worship in the United States. Another mosque had opened in 1929 in Ross, North Dakota, but because of its dilapidated condition was torn down and rebuilt 40 years ago.

“Sorry about the mess,” Imam Taha says with a shy smile. Because of the flood a week ago, everything had to be brought to the upper floor. Not all the boxes have been unpacked. The basement of the building is surrounded by white sandbags, just like the adjacent buildings on 9th street, near the Cedar River.

The first Muslim migrants initially called this mosque “Enedi,” which means “the Club.” It was a place where community members would come together to eat, where kids would play and parents would talk about their new life in their new country. “To them, it was an oasis,” Taha says in a gentle, sometimes hardly audible tone. Back then, it was all about being American — just like now, at Imam Hassan’s Islamic Center. Taha, who is originally from Jerusalem and came to the U.S. in 1980, continues: “Even the imam himself wore a bow tie, none of the women wore headscarves, the concept of the big melting pot was very much alive.”

“You’re right about Islamophobia, and that’s a shame. But whether we like it or not — and we could be very politically correct — there is a problem. We have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on. When they see hatred going on, they have to report it.” (Donald Trump’s response to Muslim woman Gorbah Hameed when asked what he intends to do to avoid citizens like her being stigmatized as a threat to the country, October 11, 2016, St. Louis.)

Imam Taha Tawil reveals he actually identifies as a conservative Republican, but wants to know Trump’s plan in relation to the Muslim population. Photo by Ilja Tüchter.

Imam Taha reveals that he is actually a Republican. A conservative. And so, the Muslim from Cedar Rapids ended up playing a funny role in the 2016 presidential campaign. He is too modest to put it that way — but Taha made it into Time magazine because he had invited Donald Trump to visit him at the Mother Mosque. “Talking to one another is the American way.”

Taha argues that the Republican candidate discriminated against Muslims, which is completely un-American, but his voice remains absolutely calm. “If he is really worried because of the Muslims,” the imam says, “we should show him who the Muslims in our country are: our doctors, our police officers, our entrepreneurs, our troops…” Taha says this is something to talk about over tea and baklava. He takes a sip from his Styrofoam cup. But the imam at the Mother Mosque did not get an answer to his January invitation [to Trump] which he repeated in various interviews with U.S. media. “I did this out of love and with all sincerity,” says the Palestinian who openly admits that, as a young man, he could get angry sometimes, until his imam once asked why he shouted so much.

“Donald Trump does not necessarily insult others. He says what he feels.” (Adam Jensen, Republican candidate, Linn County, Iowa) “There are Muslims in Cedar Rapids who support Mr. Trump. They are worried about their children, that they might radicalize.” (Cindy Golding, Republican chairwoman, Linn County, Iowa)

Taha Tawil goes upstairs to the prayer room. He takes off his shoes and walks over the thick carpet in his socks. On the wall, the name of Mary is written in calligraphy. The imam says that, after all, the Muslims believe in Jesus as a prophet who will return. The Palestinian opens his arms wide to emphasize his words. “We are Americans, we love this country.”

He adds that the fact that Trump addresses the real problems of terrorism with his loud slogans is fine, and that it’s good if the Republican candidate reaches people who had lost their interest in politics. Imam Taha is deeply convinced that the Republican Party stands for family, for God, and for human rights. “But we have to know what Trump’s plan really is. We can’t go back to Syria and Palestine…” With a sad look on his face, Taha shakes his head.

“Thank you for your e-mail. We appreciate your support! A member of our team will contact you to discuss your request. Please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube for news from the campaign. Together, we will make America great again!” (October 12, 2016. Response to a press query from RHEINPFALZ, asking whether it is true that Donald Trump ignored an invitation by Imam Taha Tawil and if so, why.)

Ilja Tüchter participated in a journalism reporting tour implemented by World Learning covering the U.S. elections from October 1–11, 2016. The program was funded by U.S. Embassy Berlin.

This article was originally published in Die Rheinpfalz, October 17, 2016. Translation by the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy Berlin.