Islam in America's Christian Mecca
Article by Sara Fleming; illustration by Anna Gilbertson
His deep voice is startling and entrancing. For me, anyway. For the others gathered here, it’s expected. He projects confidently into the silence of the room, words bouncing off the walls in a drawn-out melody somewhere between chant and song. Nearly 100 people are jammed in the relatively small room. Together, they stand, bow, kneel, bow and stand again in response to him. But after a while, I realize that it’s not his voice that’s important—it’s the words themselves, or the communal, physical response to them or maybe something I can never quite know, that marks its sacredness.
This room is a sparsely-furnished, brightly-lit carpeted space in a modest building just past I-25, due west. It is the only mosque in Colorado Springs. I am on the visitors’ side of the room, watching the Friday juma service through a glass door as people filter in and out. Some are dressed in formal prayer robes, others in business attire, on their lunch breaks from work. All have taken off their shoes to stand on the prayer rug. Children fiddle with their socks, mimic the movements of older congregation members or jump on their fathers’ backs as they try to kneel down in worship. It is both a casual and serious affair. Bilal Mohammed, the leader of today’s service, talks about devotion to God and teaching children the foundational stories and lessons of Islam. His sermon is fast-paced, loud and excited. “Allah does not need us, he created us to worship him. But we need Allah, and he continually gives to us.”
The Muslims in Colorado Springs are a small but devoted community. Most of the members of the congregation are immigrants from Muslim-majority countries who moved to Colorado Springs in various waves after the mid-1980s. They came largely for jobs in the tech industry, but more recently, a few students have come for college at UCCS and CC. There are also a small number of American-born congregation members who grew up practicing Islam or who converted later in life. The congregation is probably more diverse than any church in Colorado Springs. Ammar Naji, professor of Arabic at Colorado College and a practicing Muslim, estimates that their mosque houses members of at least 80 different nationalities and speakers of 15 to 20 different languages.
“What you see in here—the constellation of these different groups—is a mark of the miracle of this religion,” he says. For Naji, Islam is a unifying power, the religion that has brought together people across tribal, ethnic, racial and national lines throughout history.
After the service, the mosque erupts in a roar of jovial conversation as people greet each other, catching up as they walk out, others finishing individual worship, shaking hands with Mohammed, the speaker. Everyone seems to know each other. It is entirely friendly, welcoming and accepting.
It seems that Muslims lead largely happy lives here in Colorado Springs, the city nicknamed “America’s Christian Mecca.” There are, of course, daily challenges for any religious minority in any society. But in an age where the Republican presidential nominee has proposed banning all Muslims from entering the country, the challenges facing Muslims in the United States are especially steep. American Muslims are so often misrepresented, targeted, or, especially in this conservative bubble, completely ignored. There is a double standard that erases that story of peace and community and replaces it uniformly with a story of violence and extremism. As a result, it is this national story that we all know:
September 11, 2001. United States. Two hijacked commercial airline flights crash into the World Trade Center in New York City, another into the Pentagon. 2,996 people are dead; over 6,000 are injured.
I hesitate to mention this story first because its narrative is overwrought, its backstory is terrifyingly misunderstood and its aftermath so horrific and complex it is almost unbelievable. It should go without saying that acts of terrorism and mass violence are not representative of Islam as a whole, and certainly not of the Muslims in Colorado Springs. But nonetheless this is an essential story to address, precisely because it is the most well-known and poorly understood. 9/11 is used to frame the way Islam is represented in America, but hardly ever from the perspectives of Muslims themselves.
Arshad Yousufi is a spokesperson for the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs, which operates the mosque and promotes its weekly services to Muslims in the area. “The thing that changed the perception of Muslims in America was 9/11,” he says. “People didn’t care too much about us before then. But after that… [people started] basically blaming all the Muslims for 9/11. We had people who were harassed at work and women harassed in malls, high school students and college kids were harassed—people calling them terrorists and stuff.”
To be clear, prejudice against Islam didn’t just pop up out of nowhere after the attacks. Peter Wright, CC professor of Religion and a scholar in Islamic Studies, emphasizes that the foundations of Islamophobia lie deep. “You cannot rule out the fact that many Muslims are people of color…Islamophobia is connected to “race, class, foreignness,” Wright said. “It’s a religion that [people] don’t understand, even though there’s far more commonality than difference. What is focused upon is exaggerated differences, and they are made to be sinister.”
Those differences are made to be sinister in part because most people only ever hear about Islam when a threat to America rises in a Muslim-majority country—for example, the hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The events we hear about have been the fuel for an American ideology that blames the entirety of a religion—comprised of 1.5 billion people across the world—for problems created by a relative few.
9/11 was simply the most startling and tragic of these events. In the months that followed and to this day, Muslims suffered blatant discrimination and a drastic spike in hate crimes—from around 30 incidents per year nationwide to 481 reported incidents in 2001, according to the FBI Unified Crime Report. Colorado Springs saw no violent attacks or legally prosecutable crimes against Muslims, but smaller incidents abounded.
According to Yousufi, Muslim women face the brunt of discrimination. They are more easily identifiable because they often wear a hijab.
Feda Elwazeir was raised in Denver by Muslim parents, both immigrants from Palestine. She moved to Colorado Springs to get her masters’ degree, met her husband and is now raising three kids in the city. Elwazeir started wearing a hijab five years ago. For her, it is a symbol of her commitment to God. For Islamophobes, however, it is a loaded garment, a signifier that promotes hatred and fear.
“Sometimes you feel it,” Elwazeir said. “Sometimes people look at you a little funny; sometimes they look at you like they’re really scared,” she laughs. “And you know, you kind of just smile and say ‘hi.’ How you carry yourself in public is a big part of how people react to you. If I don’t have my kids with me it’s a little bit harsher than when I do. They look scared, afraid to say something to me. They don’t even smile.”
But on the whole, Elwazeir is optimistic about her life in the Springs. “Even though we live in a predominantly Christian city, I’ve always felt like people have always been kind, they’ve always reached out, they’ve always wanted to know more about Islam and our community,” she says. “Many people have visited the mosque, we’ve given speeches and lessons at churches around the city, and through that outreach, we can help to clear misconceptions, prejudice and racial discrimination that come along with all of this negativity.”
Muslims in Colorado Springs have seen significant success at building a community with Christian or non-religious neighbors. In the days following 9/11, a group of locals, mostly from more progressive, tolerant Christian churches in Colorado Springs, organized outside of the mosque to show solidarity. And, even after other attacks throughout the years, they have repeatedly received messages of support from locals.
Churches soon began inviting Yousufi to explain the basics of Islam to their congregations. “Europeans have a long history of colonization of Muslim countries, so they tend to know more about Islam,” Yousufi explains. “Americans tend to know nothing about Islam. So what I want to do is give them the basics and say: this is what Islam is about. Basically the idea was to reassure people about Islam to realize that 9/11 was an aberration.”
Yousufi thinks that he must have visited 50 to 70 churches since 9/11. Sometimes clearing up a very basic misconception is all it takes. “I’ve been told by people on several occasions that I’m the first Muslim that they have ever seen,” Yousufi says. Meeting an actual member of a religion they otherwise would have condemned often helps dispel the notion that Islam is evil.
Elwazeir echoes Yousufi’s sentiment. “We as Muslims have to deal with [terrorist attacks] as they come along,” she says. “It’s unfortunate that a group of people has put it on the map. But this racial prejudice has always been around, and not just to Muslims. Many religions have faced this throughout history, and unfortunately Islam is under the spotlight right now. Who knows for how long. We don’t agree with what’s going on, this is not what Islam is, and that is the message we want to send to people. It just takes a few who can spread to a few: saying I’ve met a Muslim, I know them, I’ve had coffee with them, I broke bread with them. It helps clear the ignorance, clear the air and opens the floor for discussion.”
However, there might be a limitation to these efforts. “Colorado Springs is a divided city,” says Yousufi. “There are folks that are willing to talk to us and receive what we say. Then there are the evangelist fundamentalists who just want to defame Islam… We know there are people who don’t like us and several of them are people who won’t change their minds. There’s nothing we can do about them.”
He is certainly right that there is a prejudice towards non-Christian religions in American society that runs deep. It is more blatant in certain communities, but it filters into the mainstream. While we claim we are a secular society, an American attachment to Christianity creates a dangerous double standard. Here’s another story, an example close to home, to illustrate just that:
November 23, 2015. Colorado Springs. A white man, Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., enters a Planned Parenthood clinic and begins shooting. After a five-hour police standoff, three people are dead and nine are injured.
As of now, Dear has been pronounced delusional by a Colorado judge and is being indefinitely held in a mental institution. In Dear’s mind, he was “saving the babies.” He was motivated by a hardline anti-abortion sentiment. According to an ex-girlfriend, he claimed to be an evangelical Christian, yet clearly he ignored the more peaceful, loving doctrines of the Bible.
Of course, no reasonable person would argue that Dear was living out Christian values as understood by any Christian, much less blame the entirety of the Christian religion for his actions. There is a tacit understanding that his mental instability disqualifies him for being a genuine representative of anyone’s beliefs.
But had Dear been Muslim and committed the same act, the story would be very different. Think of the Orlando shooting—clearly the shooter was motivated by hatred, homophobia and severe mental instability. He, too, claimed a religious motivation, citing alliance with ISIS, although the CIA found no evidence for this claim. Yet this attack is labeled as a terrorist attack and used as justification for attacks against Islam as a whole.
There are some who would argue that Islam is more easily perceived as violent because of aspects of the Qur’an that seem to promote jihad, or holy war, which ISIS claims it is waging. The doctrinal differences between Christianity and Islam are complex, but it’s fair to say that both the Bible and the Qur’an have passages that seem oppressive and self-contradictory. The notion that people act radically according to Islam, while they do not do so according to Christianity, is simply false, both in a wider span of history and in the present day. Yousufi points to the organization Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, founded by a Christian and labeled as a terrorist organization. This does not mean that global terrorism in connection with Islam isn’t a powerful force and a serious issue—both Yousufi and Elwazeir take it as such. The problem is that many Americans think there is a tendency toward extremism in the nature of Islam and only Islam. But that is an illusion propagated by a double standard: the impenetrable shield we have set up to protect the majority-religion and identity in our own society.
Colorado Springs is an interesting case study when it comes to the question of what creates this illusion and drives Islamophobia: is it the national Christian identity, race, history or something else? While the Springs is often pegged as a religious, conservative city, its particular brand of religious conservatism is difficult to articulate. There are the libertarian stalwarts who have been here since the city’s beginnings. These are the rural Coloradans who share a “hands-off” ideal, who continue to tote their guns and love their freedom away in the recently sprung quasi-metropolis (or, rather, endless suburbia.) Then there are the fundamentalist evangelicals to whom Yousufi referred earlier. They are called by divine order to the Lord’s valley (That call, I suspect, was probably moderated through one of the ultra-socially-conservative “parachurch” policy promoters like Focus on the Family, which moved its headquarters here in 1993, or one of the 81 different religious organizations that followed). There are those who work in the military and defense industry—the Springs is home to both an Air Force and Army base, the Air Force Academy and several defense manufacturing companies. And either emerging from some conglomerate of its various conservative sects, or out of some mysterious unrelated ideological background, are those on board the Trump Train, riding full steam ahead to the long-awaited future they’ve anticipated, one in which their own American identity is reclaimed—against the odds—from all “other” races, religions and nationalities who have integrated into the framework of the nation.
I suspect it is the Trump supporters who are most worrisome. His campaign seems to have sparked an uptick in violence, with hate crimes toward Muslims at a record high since 2001 nationwide (though in Colorado, interestingly, the rate has decreased). Obviously, politicians, media pundits and random racist uncles have been spewing threats toward Muslims long before Trump’s campaign, but the election cycle has made Islamophobia more broadly acceptable. Beyond his initial threat to ban all Muslims, Trump has continually made sweeping, discriminatory pronouncements. By the time this magazine has gone to print, he’ll probably already have said even more inflammatory, unthinkable things.
Elwazeir and Yousufi both expressed worry and contempt for Trump, (though they don’t take his prospects of winning very seriously). “When I speak to other Muslim friends,” Elwazeir says, “some people have said, if he becomes president, I have to find another place to go live.”
Amongst those who are serious about things such as banning all Muslims from the country, there seems to be more than a lack of understanding of Islam. “As we have become a multicultural society, people who have been at the margins have come forward and wanted to be recognized,” Wright says. “Then there has been a segment of the population who has felt threatened by that and been drawn to ideologies that offer them reassurance that they’re okay, that they’re saved and right with God.”
According to Yousufi, as a result, “People feel frightened when they see a woman wearing a hijab. Instead of becoming educated about it, we don’t go there because of fear. Fear cuts off rationality… once you stop thinking and asking for evidence and recognizing difference, you’re done. You cannot work your way through problems.”
Where does this defensive impulse to protect one’s own identity come from? Yousufi has a theory: “There seems to be a fear that Islam is similar to Christianity. If it was something like Hinduism and Buddhism it wouldn’t bother them. Because Islam has so many similar beliefs and practices, I think it scares them more. So they go out of their way to try and pick up stuff that’s out of context or under superstition to try to blame.”
The common roots of Christianity and Islam, paradoxically, might create a falsified sense of difference. Perhaps they are also key to understanding acts of violence justified by faith. One of the most famous stories in both religions may give us a clue:
Circa 1700 BCE. Moriah. Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham prepares to do so, with the complete intention of carrying it out, but at the last moment God offers a ram to sacrifice in Isaac’s place. Zero (human) casualties.
Abraham is known as the “Father of Faith” because three of the world’s most influential religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) trace their roots to him. He is a central figure in the Old Testament and the Qur’an.
The 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book agonizing over the story of Abraham and Isaac. The trouble that drove his obsession was that the story doesn’t make any sense at all. There is no rational explanation for Abraham’s actions. If someone today killed their son and justified it by saying that God commanded them to do it, we would dismiss this person in a similar manner as we have Robert Dear: insane, deluded, dangerous. But instead Abraham is a hero, someone who is lauded as an example of devotion to God. He will certainly not be forgotten by humanity in the foreseeable future. Why?
Kierkegaard comes to the conclusion that Abraham is a true “man of faith.” To have faith is to be an individual who moves from the seemingly logical order of society to emerge from its comfortable mundanity into an individual confrontation with God. Apparently, this is no easy task. Hence the title of the book: “Fear and Trembling.”
The mainstream versions of the Abrahamic religions don’t really emphasize this kind of faith. They instead promote a casual acceptance that God is there and that He will be involved in your life in some way. But I think the shocking nature of Abraham’s story has played a role in making these religions what they are: similar not only in their teachings, but in their extremist forms.
Think of the word “Fundamentalism.” Literally, it refers to one who takes the word of a sacred text or of some religious authority’s interpretation literally. This definition can apply to some evangelical Christians’ hardline stance against same-sex marriage as much as it might apply to some Muslims’ enforcing aspects of Sharia law. In both cases, it can all too easily slip into calls for violence. In each religion, there is room for a believer to cross the line from everyday love and kindness and use religion to motivate or justify something inexplicable and tragic. Perhaps this is not unrelated to the sentiment promoted by Abraham, that “faith” can manifest in a test from God, asking one to commit an unspeakable act. These people—the 9/11 bombers, Robert Lewis Dear Jr., ISIS—are, like Abraham, radical individuals. While it’s questionable whether their actions are rooted in faith, they aren’t representative of their entire religious communities. Yet forces of fear, prejudice and protection of our own identity too often lead us to associate them as such.
All three of these stories involve someone committing an act of violence, and all from a proclaimed motivation of faith and command from God. Yet the real common bond is that none of these stories, told in what seems to be objective, factual form are entirely “true.” They are stories that society tells us, and eventually, they become stories we tell ourselves. We can’t avoid doing this. Making sense of the world and our lives through some sort of narrative arc seems essential to our social and psychological survival. But we should tread with care. Yousufi’s efforts to dispel prejudice against Islam by telling its story from his perspective are emblematic of this: we can’t accurately judge what we perceive to be true until it is held up against another narrative. So we should pay attention to the stories that are often less told, and the way they intersect. If we do not, we risk that ignorance will turn into fear, and fear will turn into violence. The greatest danger is that the stories we tell ourselves will be stories told in isolation.