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The Muslims in your neighborhood: Immigrant Muslims bring with them varied cultures and customs

The Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis says a member recently received a threatening call from a man upset over recent shootings in California that authorities say were carried out by a Muslim couple.
Courtesy Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon - Imam Samuel Ansari is from St. Louis. Anjum Shariff, born in India, grew up here, too. Melissa Matos, born in New York and raised in Miami, came to St. Louis a few years ago. Imam Muhamed Hasic arrived here from Bosnia 14 years ago. Twenty years ago, Gulten Ilhan, from Turkey, came to St. Louis. And in 1970, Mir Asif, from India, made the Gateway City his home.

One word describes all of them -- Muslims.

But what that word doesn't convey are the layers of people who fall into that category. It says nothing of the country where a person comes from, of the cultural influences that shape their religious practices and beliefs or even of the factors -- ethnicity, education -- that influence who they are.

Look around St. Louis, though, and you'll see those layers in the lives of people like Ansari, Shariff, Matos, Hasic, Ilhan and Asif. In the metro area, like around the rest of the country, the Muslim population has grown steadily over the past 25 years, representing both native-born Americans and immigrants.

"The main thing that people are missing is that there's a tremendous diversity with Muslims worldwide at all levels," Shariff says.

A Growing Community

Forty years ago, Asif came to St. Louis. Then, there was one Nation of Islam mosque, traditionally attended by black American Muslims, in the city. Now, the St. Louis area has at least nine Muslim community centers, which include masjids, also called mosques, for worship, classroom space for instruction and meeting space for social gatherings. Those centers are in Manchester, Overland, Glen Carbon, Ill., and Belleville, Ill., among others. Hasic says people tend to attend the mosques closest to where they live.

Hasic, president of the Islamic Community Center, estimates that about 100,000, Muslims live in the area, about half of them Bosnian, like him. They also come from Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and from America.

But no one knows the exact number.

"It's very difficult to come up with any kind of an estimate," says Ahmet Karamustafa, a professor of history and religious studies at Washington University.

His conservative guess, based on his knowledge of the community, is that the population is around 50,000 to 60,000 people.

"I don't know that anyone knows," he says.

But most do agree that it's a population that's grown over time, both here and nationally.

According to a 2010 statistical abstract from the U.S. Census Bureau, 527,000 Muslims lived in the United States in 1990. In 2008, that number rose to 1.35 million. But Islam wasn't the only religion to grow during that time. Catholicism grew a bit from 46 million to 57 million, Baptists from 34 million to 36 million and Hinduism grew from 227,000 to 582,000.

Standing Out, Blending In

While St. Louis has had a mosque since 1957, the first wave of Muslim immigrants began coming over after 1965, Karamustafa says, when immigration laws were relaxed. Now, many communities are second, even third generation, with children born and raised here.

But even during Shariff's childhood growing up in Fenton (he's now 37), he was usually the first Muslim people would meet. He wasn't black, he says, and he wasn't white. He definitely stood out.

Now, Asif says, thanks to work visas and jobs in many professions, the population is much larger.

Still, he thinks, because of the media and events around the world that put Muslims in the news, many people don't really understand Muslims until they get to know them.

"People know who we are," he says, "but they don't know what we are. When they're living with us, they're able to know what we are."

For Karamustafa, one of the biggest misconceptions about Muslims in America, and perhaps around the world, is that everyone attends the mosque. They don't, he says. Like Christians, many will observe the big holy days and times, such as Ramadan, but like many Christians, being a Muslim is about culture as well as faith.

"Somehow when people begin to talk about Muslims and Islam and all that, that just falls through the cracks," he says.

The Welcome Mat

In all his time here, Asif shares no complaints of how he's been treated.

And generally, Karamustafa says, he only hears positive things, especially in the neighborhoods where Muslims live.

Shariff, a radiologist who runs the website stlislam.com, agrees. Mostly he's been treated just fine.

But he sometimes thinks it's hard to say if he's treated a certain way because he's Muslim, or Indian, or if someone was just having a bad day. Still, it's not common, he says, and he doesn't look for it. Actually, he's more impressed with how well Muslims are treated in St. Louis.

Karamustafa can think of a few possible reasons for that, and class is one of them.

"Generally speaking, the immigrant community here has been more heavily professional types," he says, "fairly well-educated when they arrive."

Jim Hacking, a lawyer who's served as counsel for the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations since 2000, agrees.

"I think it'd be fair to say that a person's experience is sort of on a continuum," he says.

For well-established Muslims who live in the suburbs and are leading middle-class to upper middle-class lives, the fact that they are Muslim doesn't necessarily define them to their neighbors.

For more recent immigrants, however, who aren't as assimilated and possibly working lower-wage jobs, Hacking thinks they face more issues.

Matos, who converted to Islam six years ago, also noticed the diversity of Muslims in St. Louis when she first came here, and she also noticed two distinct groups of Arabs living in St. Louis -- professionals who lived in the county and newer immigrants working lower paying jobs in the city. The two don't have much to do with each other, she says, and probably do have different experiences.

Matos, whose parents are from the Dominican Republic, wears a headscarf and says she hasn't really had any problems here. Once someone asked her if she was from Afghanistan, and not in a good way, she says. But in Miami, someone made a comment to her on her way into the store and when she came out, her tires were slashed.

For Ilhan, though, the picture is a different one. When told what others interviewed for this story reported about the treatment of Muslims in St. Louis, she disagreed.

"Everything is not fine," she says.

Before And After

Many people divide times in their lives by marriage, or when they have children.

"I divide my life before 9/11 and my life after 9/11," says Ilhan, a professor of philosophy at St. Louis Community College at Meramec.

In both St. Louis and the rest of the country, there have been many examples of religious discrimination, from the threatened burning of a Koran by a Florida pastor last month to the disputes over the New York Muslim community center to the online outcry to a minaret that was built by Hasic in south St. Louis a few years ago.

From her time as the vice president of the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ilhan knows Muslims in St. Louis continue experiencing discrimination, but many are afraid to talk about or report it.

The motivation behind that fear might be important to understand, though.

"If you're an American and you're born and raised here, you feel entitled to criticize," Matos says. "I think people feel like maybe they still kind of don't belong here, so maybe they try harder."

Hacking knows of examples of discrimination as well.

Right now, he's working on a case with two Arabs who experienced both religious and racial discrimination at their workplace and were eventually let go.

"I think it's going to be easy to prove that it was because of their race and religion," he says.

And race, more than religion, may be the biggest reason for discrimination, says Ansari, the imam at the Al-Mu'Minun Islamic Center on North Grand, which used to be the Nation of Islam mosque and is now Sunn'i.

"Probably for the African-American (Muslim) community, race is probably a bigger issue than religious issues," he says.

"I think it has everything to do with it," Karamustafa agrees of race and ethnicity. "More than being Muslim."

Kristen Hare

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