BEAVERTON – At Friday services out at Bilal mosque last week, the imam was talking about a small town in Iowa. It’s off in the state’s northeast corner, on the Turkey River, and with 1,200 people, it might barely be noticed in the Iowa caucuses.
It’s Elkader, Iowa – named in 1846 after an Algerian warrior who fought the French invaders, named by two Christian town founders who thought there was something American about resisting European colonization.
Because the sermon wasn’t really about Iowa, but about connections
“Inshallah, we will one day take the youth of this community to Elkader, Iowa,” Imam Toure told the Friday worshippers. “If he was able to inspire people, we who are here now should be able to do the same.”
Or, as mosque president Shariar Ahmed explained afterward, “In this country, if you don’t put down roots, roots come up at you.” It’s why, he says, he always objects when one of his fellow immigrants reports going home for a visit.
To Ahmed, this is home.
In the wake of the killings in Paris, a few things have come up at the members of Bilal mosque; an insult on MAX, harassment of a hijab-wearing woman on the street. It hasn’t been anything like the days after 9/11 when, Toure recalls, his Northeast Portland mosque received 25 death threats.
But the Paris attacks mean something particular to Toure; he received his master’s degree in comparative religion at the Sorbonne.
“It’s not enough to say this is not Islam,” says Toure. “We have to understand the feelings of the non-Muslims. Go out and meet your neighbors.”
There’s a lot of meeting to be done. The leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president talks about keeping files on all Muslims in America, and whether he’d think about closing down mosques. Monday on TV, he mused about Islam that “There’s something nasty coming out of there.”
Aspects of Bilal can look very familiar. Outside the mosque Friday, there was a bake sale to support the religious school. Inside the all-male services, there were some robes and long South Asian shirts, but a lot more blue jeans, along with sweatshirts for the Oregon Ducks, Portland Fire & Rescue and a Little League All-Star team, and some hospital scrubs. Many members work for Intel, including mosque president Ahmed, who explains, “The only qualification I have is I am shameless in asking for money.”
That need can be clear. The mosque has just completed an expansion, and there are plans on the wall for the next one. For Friday prayers, the room is jammed, and men move over to create more space on the rug. The crowd is diverse, with lots of South Asian and Middle Eastern faces, but including every identity visible in a Portland mall.
“Most of us are immigrants,” says Toure. “We made tremendous efforts to come to this country, and tremendous efforts to stay in this country.”
Toure, who counts himself a seventh-generation imam, is from Senegal, where he got an undergraduate degree in American civilization. After Paris, he studied psychology at Georgetown, and came out to Oregon to do field practice at Waverly Children’s Home. After that, he worked for 14 years as a social worker for the state Department of Human Services, and now works for the children’s support group Court Appointed Special Advocates in Washington County.
Now, he says, “I am a die-hard Oregonian,” liking the Northwest pace and atmosphere more comfortable than his East Coast experience in Washington, D.C. “For me, it was a very personal journey.”
There are other aspects of life here he admires. “Ninety-nine percent of Muslims in America,” he says, “have more freedom to practice their religion than in their home countries.”
Probably, that will still be the case even after this presidential campaign.
There is a communications gap here, and it can widen after every atrocity half a world away, or these days after every presidential debate. Bilal sees its own need to reach across it; it has Webinars – perhaps fittingly with its high-tech membership – and reaches out to local high schools like Westview and Jesuit.
“The measure of who you are is what you do with what you have,” Toure told his audience, adding later, “The message has to be clear and unequivocal.”
There are some Muslims, throughout the world, doing terrible things, and that’s a problem for the world, and especially other Muslims.
And there are Muslims who, in identity and values, are as American as Iowa.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 12/2/15.