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The Muslims in your neighborhood

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 25, 2010 - Every Friday around lunch time, a line of cars drives into the empty parking lot of an empty building. Around to the back lot, the men park and enter. Over speckled blue carpet, they walk into the gym, lay out their rugs and begin their prayers.

Mir Asif is among the men who come to this St. Charles chapel each Friday, like they have for the past three years.

This illustrated a mostly quiet, largely unknown relationship between the Muslim Community Center of St. Charles and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on Old Highway 94.

The community has grown to about 100 families in St. Charles County, Asif says, and as they work to secure land for a community center, they meet in this chapel that, because it's not the Mormon temple, is open to all.

Over the past 25 years, the number of Muslims in St. Louis has grown tremendously -- something that's perhaps best reflected in the building of community centers in the area.

In 1957, the city had one Nation of Islam mosque. Now, the area has at least nine Muslim community centers. During that time, other religious communities, such as the LDS church in St. Charles, have become allies for the Muslim communities.

But the communities themselves have also become more savvy about how to go settle in and establish themselves, says Ahmet Karamustafa, a professor of history and religious studies at Washington University.

Building Bridges (and Centers)

Asif sits in a large room at the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis in Manchester. As he speaks about himself, his faith and the growth of the Muslim community in St. Louis, he holds a pamphlet about understanding Islam.

That very thing, he thinks, is best achieved through the kind of relationships that's brought the Muslim Community Center of St. Charles and the LDS church there together.

In 2007, Deborah Coffey, an LDS member, helped start the Interfaith Partnership of St. Charles County. The group has interfaith dialogue meetings once a month; and, through them, she got to know Asif. He told the group there was no community center in St. Charles, though they hoped to build one, and the Muslim community in the county needed a place for Friday prayers.

Coffey started asking around. At first, one church thought it could help, but backed out after the congregation feared a community backlash.

So Coffey went to her church and got approval. Since then, a group of Muslims in St. Charles arrives at the LDS chapel each Friday. While they offered to rent the space, Coffey says there's no charge, though the group does make a donation. And in the LDS congregation, at least, there haven't been any problems with the relationship.

"From what I have seen, the members of our church have been very enthusiastic about it," she says.

The group, itself persecuted in the past, feels strongly about religious freedom, she says.

But the situation won't be a permanent one. For four years, the St. Charles Muslim group has been trying to get land for a center, and that's longer than it's taken to build other centers. But in that time, they've come up against the same issues that some other centers have.

Getting Through Red Tape

In St. Charles, Asif says, the Muslim Community Center did find a piece of land last year, but according to him and reports from the St. Charles County Suburban Journals, county officials said the entrance wasn't wide enough and a neighbor wouldn't give up any land.

Still, Asif says, he's had no problems with any city officials.

Some other groups have, though.

In 2007, St. Louis County's County Council voted against allowing a community center that Imam Muhamed Hasic was trying to build in south county. The land was bought as residential and needed to be rezoned. There was a lawsuit, an outpouring of support from both the Jewish and Christian communities, and later that year the vote was reversed.

Over time, Karamustafa thinks the Muslim community as a whole has gotten better at understanding what's necessary to build a new center -- how to get through planning and zoning, how to work with officials and to bring lawyers in early.

Jim Hacking, a lawyer who has worked with the Council on American-Islamic Relations since 2000, agrees. He estimates as many as 16 or 17 places where Muslims regularly gather. Often, the creation of new spaces doesn't even make the news.

"Being under the radar's a big deal," he says.

According to a September report from the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life, the United States has 1,897 mosques. The report also maps out 35 mosques and Islamic centers that have met with community resistance, most notably, perhaps, the center in New York. Missouri, however, did not make the list.

In Time

Gulten Ilhan, originally from Turkey, feels solid in her faith. What worries her most is the younger generations of Muslims, says the professor of philosophy at St. Louis Community College, Meramec campus.

After 9/11, her 6-year-old daughter came to her and asked, "Mommy, how come all Muslims are so bad?"

For the younger generation of Muslims growing up as a minority in America, their faith can be a great burden, Ilhan says.

As with most immigrant groups settling in the country, there's always a fear of loss of culture, language and customs, too. And the younger generation is different, Asif says.

"We have to change," he says. "My policy is that we have to change with changing times but with unchanged principals."

Melissa Matos, 25, converted to Islam six years ago. Her biggest concerns are for the newer immigrant population who may not speak English, who may be coming from war-torn countries and trying to settle in St. Louis. She worries for the middle-age Iraqi woman dressed all in black who speaks no English.

"That's the person who gets targeted," Matos says. "Not me."

Knowing that, she works to help people understand Islam and Muslims, both actively and by just being herself.

For Hasic, the biggest challenge is something nearly all immigrant groups face at one point or another -- retaining identity.

"Right now," he says, "I see us losing it fast."

Culturally, he sees the younger generation losing their traditions, their language and their connections with the older generation. Religiously, he sees a loss, too, as new families come to St. Louis and settle here into lower-paying jobs, which leaves them less time to educate their children about their religion.

At a community-wide level, Karamustafa says that in the future, the Muslim community needs to professionalize how they run community centers, from hiring paid personnel to fundraising.

"They have to learn to go about doing things here," he says, "the American way."

There also needs to be a broader establishment of Muslims in the community working with the public and charities in a visible way.

That's not just good PR, he says, and knows people in the community would like to be able to, but when they're just getting established, it can be tough to fit it in.

For Anjum Shariff, who's lived in St. Louis most of his life, the challenges in the future are also community-wide, especially in dealing with some generally held perceptions and misconceptions about Muslims.

Those misperceptions include the ideas that when Muslims do bad things, they're doing so because their religion tells them to, that men dominate women in marriage, that the culture in Muslim countries is created entirely around Islam, that Muslims are openly or secretly anti-Western, that women have limited rights and that Muslims as a group are monolithic, with no ideological, philosophical or political differences.

"The biggest challenge for them is going to be trying to find what they have in common and then dealing with challenges in a cohesive manner," he says.

But from what Ilhan has seen most recently, maybe it's not just the Muslim community that will be tackling what's next.

The Muslim population in St. Louis has changed a great deal in the 20 years she's been here, and life for Muslims changed, too, after September 11, 2001. But, she says, sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.

With the threatened Koran burnings by a Florida pastor last month, and all the news the New York City Muslim community center has gotten, Ilhan has heard many people from other faiths speak out against discriminatory treatment of Muslims.

For her, it feels like a turning point -- the beginning of dialogue and, maybe, understanding.

Kristen Hare

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