article and photograph by Susan Hogan/Albach
In the darkened suburban Chicago theater, all eyes rested on a 34-year-old American Muslim storyteller with a Midwest accent. For the next hour, Arif Choudhury told poignant stories about growing up in a white American neighborhood with his Bangladeshi parents.
“As a kid, I thought all the Muslims in the world were like me — short, skinny and brown,” said Choudhury, a Chicago native. Then one day, his dad took him to a nearby mosque, where everyone was white. “I told him we were in the wrong building,” Choudhury said, which garnered chuckles from the audience. “He told me about Eastern European Muslims.”
Choudhury grew up in Illinois in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when Muslims weren’t so visible across the landscape. Like many young Muslims living in the state today, he straddled two worlds — his parents’ native culture and that of his own.
“I ate McDonald’s food with my American friends and lentils with my Muslim friends,” he said. During Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, he rose before dawn and “downed a lot of Coke and Totino’s pizza.”
Illinois Muslims have come a long way since then. More than 90 mosques and Islamic centers now exist. Schools, professional organizations, civil rights groups — even Muslim summer camps — are now woven into the state’s culture.
Today, more than 400,000 Muslims live in Illinois, as compared with about 50,000 in the 1970s, according to the Chicago Tribune. Their leaders include well-educated physicians, lawyers and religious leaders — a few who’ve become superstars on the national and international scene — with the U.S. president, pope and the Dalai Lama in their spheres of influence.
Among those prominent Muslims is Eboo Patel, founder of Chicago’s Interfaith Youth Core, which promotes interfaith cooperation. He writes a religion column for the Washington Post and serves on President Barack Obama’s advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships.
“American Muslims want to be part of the solution to the problems Americans are having with Muslims around the world,” says Abdul Malik Mujahid, the newly elected board chairman of the Chicago-based Parliament of the World’s Religions. He’s the first Muslim to hold the position.
“Muslims in Illinois have learned the importance of getting involved in all aspects of society at the grassroots level,” says Mujahid, president of Sound Vision and executive producer of Radio Islam, both in Bridgeview.
Downstate, where there are fewer Muslims, the story is different. In smaller cities, resources are fewer. In rural areas, Muslims are almost nonexistent.
“In Chicago, the large Muslim population has the liberty to form a lot of different mosques,” says Imad Rahman, a leader at the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center in Urbana. Those tend to be organized along racial and ethnic lines.
“You’ll see a mosque that’s predominantly Arab or Bosnian or Indian and Pakistani,” Rahman says. “We’re not going to have that in Champaign-Urbana. Our population is smaller, so it forces a diverse demographic within the mosque.”
That diversity sometimes leads to clashes over whether specific practices are cultural or religious. For instance, during gatherings at the mosque, how much interaction should be allowed between genders?
“The Arabs are mostly separatists, but those of us from India mix freely,” says Matiur Rahman, a retired chemist from India. Even so, he says, the rules are more relaxed at the center than a decade ago.
“Times have changed,” says Rahman, who isn’t related to Imad Rahman. “There are meetings now where men are sitting on one side of a table and women on the other, and there’s no separation.”
For teens such as Sumaiya Mohammed, 19, who grew up in Palatine and attended public schools, following the strict gender rules set down by her Indian parents has been hard because other American teens don’t live that way.
“In high school, I never went to dances or the prom,” says Mohammed, a petite community college student whose face is framed by a large scarf.
“I wanted to go with friends, but my parents wouldn’t allow it,” she says. “There’s no dating. I’m not even supposed to be seen publicly talking with a boy. Sometimes you feel left out. But then you see kids getting in trouble, and you start to appreciate the rules.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, men and women filed into the Urbana mosque across from the University of Illinois for what is traditionally the biggest gathering of the week. They kicked off their shoes before filing into a big room with no chairs.
The men lined up shoulder to shoulder in long rows at the front half of the room. The women sat on the floor behind them. At other mosques, they might sit in a loft overlooking the men.
“It’s about modesty,” explains Fatemah Hermes, a student who greets visitors with a wide smile. “When we pray, we do a lot of kneeling and bending over. That’s not the most flattering position for a woman. We’d rather not have the men behind us.”
Behind a lectern at one end of the room is a casually dressed man wearing a dark vest. The leader of Friday prayer is always a man here — a practice typical in mosques around the world. For 20 minutes, he talks to the crowd about gratitude.
“The most valuable thing to us who come pray here is our belief in Allah,” he tells the people who fill the room and spill into the hallways. “Let us be thankful for what we have. Let our gratitude drive us to help others in need.”
Before 9/11, Illinois’ Muslims focused inward, they say. Many had come to the state from other countries around the world and feared cultural and religious assimilation.
And with good reason, according to Mohammad Siddiqi, the interim chair of the English and Journalism Department at Western Illinois University in Macomb.
“There were no mosques and only one grocery store that provided halal meat when I came to Chicago,” says Siddiqi, a native of India who came to the United States in 1981. “The issues in the community were internal. Parents were deeply concerned about establishing schools to teach Islam to their children.”
Because Muslims who settled in Illinois tended to be well-educated and affluent, they had the means to carry out their vision. Illinois Muslims include a high number of doctors and lawyers — women as well as men.
“We were living in our own affluent bubble and not caring a whole lot about what was going on outside of the bubble,” Imad Rahman says. “We thought being good Muslims was spending all of our time with Muslims.”
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything.
“Not a day since then have American Muslims been free of the suspicion that they might be terrorists,” says Imran Khan, a 19-year-old Muslim convert from Mount Prospect. “I was 9 years old when the attacks happened. Yet, I constantly deal with guys calling me ‘terrorist’ just because I’m a Muslim.”
A few days after Khan uttered those words, a Muslim man from Nigeria was arrested for trying to blow up an airplane over Detroit. The man, a passenger on the plane, was carrying explosives in his underwear.
Last year, a poll taken by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that a third of Americans believe that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.
The stigma is worse in Illinois, some Muslims believe, because of high profile terrorism charges against people with ties in the state:
In addition, after the maximum-security prison in Thomson soared to the top of President Barack Obama’s sites to move Guantanamo Bay prisoners, U.S. Rep. Donald Manzullo, a Republican from Egan, told a Rockford television station the terrorists were “driven by some savage religion.”
“We say over and over that Islam is a peaceful religion,” says Mujahid, a past president of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. “Terrorists who do violence in the name of Islam are misguided. They distort what we stand for and believe.”
When a dozen soldiers were fatally shot by a military psychiatrist at Fort Hood in Texas in November, several Illinois Muslims say they prayed: “Please don’t be Muslim. Please don’t be Muslim.”
The accused shooter was a Virginia native who self-identified as Muslim. Islamic organizations across Illinois were quick to send out news releases condemning the violence.
Even so, after the shootings, a Chicago area Muslim says she was verbally assaulted and her head covering pulled off at a grocery market by another shopper who was angry about what happened at Fort Hood.
“Every time someone commits violence in the name of Islam, Muslims living here experience backlash,” says Hasan Shahid, 24, a graduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in Latin American studies.
During the last presidential election, Obama garnered overwhelming support from U.S. Muslims. More than 90 percent voted Democratic, according to the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.
But a few decades ago, they were solidly in the Republican camp, drawn by conservatives’ opposition to gay marriage and abortion.
September 11 proved to be a political turning point for Muslims, Siddiqi says.
“It was a wake-up call that we needed to do more to integrate ourselves more fully into the mainstream of American society,” Siddiqi says. “We had been so inwardly focused that we weren’t prepared for the suspicion that followed the attacks.”
When the administration of President George W. Bush launched its so-called war on terrorism, American Muslims at home felt under attack. Their charities were accused of funneling money to terrorists; they faced wire tapping and other intrusive surveillance, as well as immigration delays.
The rhetoric of some Republican politicians and religious leaders further alienated U.S. Muslims. Franklin Graham, son of respected evangelist Billy Graham, described Islam as a “very evil and wicked religion.”
“What we learned after 9/11 is that it might not be in our best interests to be tied to the Republican Party,” Rahman says. “A lot of Muslims feared they would lose their freedom to practice their religion because of the rhetoric.”
But not all Republicans were insensitive. A few months a go, 88-year-old Paul Findley, a former 11-term Republican congressman from central Illinois, spoke out against the religious bigotry at a Muslim gathering in San Antonio.
“You have a duty to defend Islam from false rumors,” newspapers reported he said. “If not for yourself, do it for your children, your neighbors. Do it for America. Do it for Islam. And never give up.”
Since Obama’s election, however, some Muslims have grown disenchanted. The president traveled to Turkey and Egypt to meet with Muslims there but appears to keep Muslims on American soil at bay. They fear he sees them as an image problem, in part, because of inaccurate claims during the campaign that he was secretly a Muslim.
“American Muslims don’t want to be shut out,” Mujahid says. “That adds to the stigma we’ve faced since 9/11.”
Siddiqi says that many non-Muslim Americans have been unwavering in their support. In fact, three days after 9/11, more than 600 people turned out in his community to dedicate a new mosque.
“Muslims were going to cancel the event after what happened,” he says. “But the mayor, police chief and townspeople encouraged us to go ahead. Hundreds of people showed up to welcome us and tell us that they were glad we’ve made a home here.”
Susan Hogan/Albach is a Park Ridge-based free-lance writer.
Illinois Issues, February 2010