Making a home in C-U: The Muslim experience in Central Illinois

TWEET: The local Muslim community is growing, despite a nationwide Islamophobic trend.y Abrar Al-Heeti

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The red metal door subtly squeaks as hundreds of congregants flow in and out.

In the foyer, the shelves are packed with shoes. Pink light-up sneakers are stacked next to brown leather men’s boots. Additional shoes lay on the tile floor covered with rubber mats.

Backpacks and purses line the entryway past the foyer as students stream in for weekly services between classes, doctors come clad in scrubs during their lunch breaks and local restaurant owners take a break from business to spend an hour in worship.

It’s a typical Friday scene at the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center.

Every person lining the dark blue rows of carpet in the prayer hall is more than just a member of the Urbana mosque. They are the lawyers, engineers, businessmen, professors, bus drivers, secretaries, accountants, mothers and teachers of the community.

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It’s easy to overlook the beige, gated mosque sandwiched between apartment complexes and a gas station on Lincoln and Springfield avenues. Across the street, a rising new apartment structure sits on the former site of a few old houses, reflecting a growing city. But the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center, or CIMIC, is growing, too.

The Friday congregation, which numbers at around 300 people, can no longer fit inside the prayer hall. Many people sit in the surrounding multipurpose area to listen to the sermon. A second prayer service was added a few years ago to help solve the problem, and an expansion project involving the construction of an annex across the street is in the works.

When Waleed Jassim, Champaign resident and longtime Muslim community leader, moved here in 1974, around 27 people attended the Friday prayers.

“We knew (early on) the community would grow, but we never knew it would be this big,” Jassim said.

The Muslim community’s expansion is happening amidst national battles on issues of race, religion and acceptance in a post-9/11 world. Political rhetoric in the age of Donald Trump, who called on banning Muslims from entering the U.S., has been hostile and has frequently pinned Muslims as the enemy. The FBI reported 154 anti-Muslim hate crime incidents in 2014, up from 135 incidents in 2013.MG

And in October, groups with anti-Muslim views led a nationwide day of protests against members of the religion. Even in cities where there wasn’t any scheduled activity, such as in Champaign-Urbana, Muslims felt uneasy and worried about what might happen.

But local law enforcement stepped in to protect the community. University of Illinois Police Department Sergeant Barb Robbins and another officer donated their time to guard each of the mosque’s entrances that day as congregants attended the Friday prayers.

“The mosque was uneasy about current events, (and) you don’t want people going to the mosque and feeling something bad can happen,” Robbins said. “Technically, the mosque is in Urbana, but I called (the Urbana Police Department) and they were fine with us doing it. They also stopped by to check in on us.”

Robbins considered it “good community policy” to protect CIMIC and its members. She said throughout the day they were thanked, and no incidents took place.

Jassim feels the local Muslim community has grown and feels at home in Champaign-Urbana because of an overall welcoming and accepting environment — by and large due to the University’s influence.

“I think it’s because the community is educated, which implies the students being educated, too,” Jassim said. “We’re also close to bigger cities, like Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis. We’re like a magnet from all those places.”

Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said local attitudes of acceptance stem from the fact that this is an international community that sees people as individuals and respects different viewpoints.

“We welcome people. We respect different religions, different political views, different races,” she said.

She commended the Muslim community’s engagement with the larger local community, namely after 9/11 when it held a reception to condemn the attacks. Prussing said attendees understood the tragic events of that day were not an act of Islam, but rather the terrible actions of individuals.

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From the Muslim community’s earliest days, numerous groups in Champaign-Urbana welcomed and supported its endeavor to establish a safe space to worship. Before there was a mosque, Muslims prayed in various locations, including the Illini Union and a “Muslim house” on Goodwin and Green, which featured apartment units upstairs and a small prayer area on the lower level. Services later took place at the University YMCA and the McKinley Foundation.

Steve Shoemaker is a former pastor and executive director at McKinley Church and Foundation and former executive director at the University YMCA. He immediately forged a connection with area Muslims when he returned to C-U in 1981 to begin working at McKinley after having served as a campus pastor in North Carolina.

“I was delighted to find out the local Muslim community was having their Friday prayers (at McKinley),” he said. “I got to know some of the leaders of the group.”

The early ’80s were a difficult time for Muslims in the U.S. because of the Iran hostage crisis. A group of Iranian students held more than 60 Americans hostage for over a year. Spiteful sentiments arising from the crisis were often extended to American-Muslims as a whole. But that only led Shoemaker to be even more welcoming.

Presby Hall and the McKinley Foundation became places where Muslims could regularly meet, pray and eat on campus.

But Shoemaker’s outreach didn’t come without skepticism. He once got called by the FBI and was questioned about his involvement with the Muslim community.

“They said, ‘What are you doing having all these Muslims here?’ I said, ‘We’re welcoming them and giving students a chance to talk to one another about important issues.’”

Shoemaker said the motivation behind his support of the Muslim community is simple: It’s a religious duty.

“I have always believed, as a Christian, that we are to be hospitable and welcoming to strangers. And like I told the FBI, we’re even supposed to love our enemies — I didn’t consider local Muslim students enemies, but the FBI clearly did,” Shoemaker laughed.

The early ’80s certainly wouldn’t be the last time Muslim-Americans were the targets of suspicion. When local community members expressed that they felt uneasy about attending prayers at the mosque after 9/11, Shoemaker opened up the YMCA to them.

“It turned out not to be necessary because there was no local violence,” He said. “There were other Christian groups and Jewish groups who came out publicly in support of the fact that (9/11) was a small minority, a radical group — that it wasn’t an action by international Islam for sure. I know that was appreciated by the mosque.”

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Sameha Martini, junior in LAS, is from Orland Park, a southwest suburb of Chicago. She went to school in the nearby suburb of Bridgeview, which has a large Arab-Muslim presence. Martini said although people there are more exposed to Muslims than they are in C-U, she doesn’t necessarily notice a difference in attitude between the two communities. She hasn’t felt threatened on the University’s campus because of her religion or the headscarf she wears to represent it.

“But at the same time, I feel like that is also just my naiveté, because the reality of it is Muslim college-age youth have been targeted; it’s not that far-fetched for something like that to potentially happen to me,” Martini said.

Nationwide Islamophobia and negative media portrayals of Muslims have contributed to her unease.

Muhammad Abdullah, a Champaign resident who converted to Islam from Christianity in 1972, believes challenges of acceptance can be overcome if Muslim communities increase their political and social involvement.

“We see some rhetoric that is kind of hostile and intimidating. America’s changing, and some people are upset about that. They don’t feel they’re in control anymore; they feel like they’re losing the America that they know. The anxiety has caused them to speak in hostile tones,” Abdullah said.

But he feels these voices make up only a small percentage of the national dialogue. And he certainly hasn’t felt their negative effects here.

“I think the Champaign-Urbana community has reached out to us, but I don’t think we have in turn helped to build those relationships,” Abdullah said. “The more we build stronger bonds, those (hostile) voices, they almost have no effect because other organizations will speak up for us. Every local Muslim community has to do its part.”

There have been a few isolated incidents of aggression toward CIMIC, but no significant harm has ever been done.

“We get threats once in a while by mail or email,” Jassim said. “People have thrown eggs at the wall.”

But Jassim said the FBI and local law enforcement have always helped to protect the mosque.

Shoemaker believes the cure to discrimination is increasing understanding by talking and listening to one another.

“There’s so much fear and prejudice that has to be overcome,” he said.

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