At one o’clock on Friday afternoons, the room begins to fill with bodies – a kaleidoscope of colors. Turquoise, magenta, cerulean and violet peppered with the occasional leopard spot or zebra stripe. Each woman is wearing her own interpretation of a covering. It varies with every culture, and in this room there are many. Some call it a burqa; some, an abaya. It owns many names. The women don a hijab, a veil that covers the head and chest, and an abaya, a simple and loose robelike dress. The cuffs of jeans are visible underneath some a telltale sign of the busy lives that each woman is taking a respite from for this holy hour.
Leaning against the wall are the mothers, corralling their children in an attempt to keep them silent during the sermon. One woman puts her finger to her lips and then points upward to Allah. Her daughter, maybe threeyears old, mimics the action. “God is too much,” she said to her mom, as the powerful voice of the imam filled the room first in Arabic, then in English.
“Let us be nice to mankind . . . Always speak on good words or just stay quiet,” the voice said, echoing over the speakers, its source coming from behind the wall in front of the women. On the other side, hundreds of men filled the space.
“As he provides sustenance, so he provides good manners. If you are called names or insulted by a fool on the street, say ‘To us, our deeds and to you, your deeds. Peace be upon you,’” the imam said.
He extolled the virtue of nobility, and urged the congregation to disallow hatred and to remember the value of a smile.
“Be careful to practice good manners, and do good deeds for yourselves before it is too late,” he said.
The sermon ends, and the women form a line at the front of the room to pray. The men do the same in the room beyond the wall, visible only through large tinted windows. The first line fills, and then the second. Each woman claims her own square on the ornate, crimson carpet, imported from Turkey. The children are roaming, some hanging onto their mothers and some following the motions of prayer. Stand, bow, kneel, bow, repeat.
Allahu Akbar. God is great.
The masjid, or the mosque, is the heart of the Muslim community in FargoMoorhead and its neighboring regions. Located in south Fargo, the masjid is home to about 6,000 people from all walks of life: doctors, professors, salesmen, students, interpreters, teachers, mothers and fathers. The congregation is one of the most diverse gatherings in the FM community, with roughly 36 different cultures represented. Ask any person where they once called home, and the answer is almost never the same. A significant portion of the congregation roughly 80 percent are New Americans.
According to Lutheran Social Services, Islam is one of the three most practiced religions of refugees who relocate in the FM area. It is also one of the religions that is regularly mentioned, and often misrepresented, in the news.
The Muslim community in Fargo-Moorhead can be explained in two words: diverse and flourishing.
THE FM MASJID: A HISTORY
The masjid is run by the Islamic Society of Fargo-Moorhead, a nonprofit organization. The building that they call home functioned as a call center only three years ago, cold and warehouselike. Before expanding into this large space, the Muslim community gathered at a much smaller masjid that they secured in the 1990s.
“We were looking for a place where people were able to come over without being on top of each other,” masjid president Nidal Omar said.
Omar, elected by the Muslim community four years ago, headed the move and renovation. The biggest challenge was funding. Everything was donated, Omar said. The move wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of the men and women who gather for prayer each day.
“One thing about our community and our people is that they’re so generous,” Omar said.
Because of the extensive renovations inside of the building, the entire process took about a year. While making decisions, Omar called upon a representative of each of the dozens of cultures within the Muslim community in an effort to be inclusive of the entire congregation. He didn’t want anybody to feel alone or uninvolved, so he assigned responsibilities to groups of people so everyone had their own task.
The old building was sold and demolished, while the new masjid continues to thrive.
NOT WITHOUT VOLUNTEERS
The masjid hosts the Muslim community for the five daily prayers, and the weekly Friday prayer (the Khutbah). Omar estimates that about 500 people attend for Friday prayer, and about 30 for each prayer throughout the day.
The society also provides Islamic school on the weekends for children to learn the Qur’an and memorize its teachings, Qur’an study groups for women and programs for children and teenagers where they can learn English and find help with a variety of things, similar to a tutoring program.
Everything at the masjid is fueled by the generosity and drive of its community. Volunteers take charge of all of these programs, taking turns to offer their time and talents to their brothers and sisters in faith.
Sahro Farah, who came to Fargo from Kenya when she was 11 years old, said she wishes the Muslim community here had more opportunities to gather outside of prayer time in order to strengthen the relationships with their brothers and sisters.
“IF YOU DON’T TEACH THEM, HOW WILL THEY KNOW?”
Within the last year, the society hosted two events at the masjid called Meet Your Muslim Neighbor, inviting the community to tour the space, meet members of the Muslim community and learn about Islam. These events provided the FM community with an opportunity to interact with Muslims on a personal level, and to understand the core messages of Islam as opposed to the distorted information that the media often portrays of a radical Islam.
The events were a huge success, bringing around 600 people to the masjid each time to learn.
Hawa Riji, who relocated in Fargo from Kenya in 1999, said she was happy to see the community show up in such large numbers.
“This is what tells me we’re living in a safe community where everybody wanted to learn about [Islam], not just focusing on the media, or judging based on ‘Oh, she’s wearing [a hijab]. Oh, she’s this.’ Labeling us,” Riji said.
Omar said that the main goal for the center is to educate people, especially during this time when the news media is overflowing with stories about Muslims and terrorist acts done in the name of Islam.
Ahmed Mohamed, who relocated to the U.S. from Somalia more than twenty years ago, teaches classes at the masjid about the Qur’an and Islamic values. He agrees that the mightiest weapon in the face of hatred is knowledge.
“Muslims are being judged for something we have no control over. I didn’t even know none of those people [ISIS]. I don’t even know what they look like. We are being judged just because of how we look. . . for what somebody across the wall did,” Mohamed said. “I have never seen somebody being killed. I have no intention to kill somebody. Americans tell us we will be judged anyone who bows, he’s part of them. There is nothing we can do about it besides educating people.”
Farah and Riji said that many people are nervous to ask questions about their religion for fear of seeming ignorant or rude.
“The more you ask, I get more excited, because I really love what I believe in. So, if you come and ask me questions, I’m more than happy to answer,” Farah said. “If you don’t teach them, how will they know?”
Riji agreed, and said that by asking questions and learning about Islam, people can teach that information to their own friends and family, and continue to share the true message of Islam to those who are confused.
“That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow,” Riji said.
The masjid’s website invites all who are curious. “You are most welcome to observe our services and attend the Friday sermons for a better understanding of Islam,” it says in multiple places.
A COMMON MISCONCEPTION
A popular criticism of Islam is its treatment of women. Many people believe that Muslim women are mistreated or subjugated. Shire Mohamed, an interpreter and volunteer teacher at the masjid who relocated from Somalia five years ago, said that this misconception about Islam is the most disturbing to him.
“People don’t understand. Women have some rights over men, and men have some rights over women,” Mohamed said.
Critics often point to the practice of veiling in Islam, claiming that it is forced on Muslim women as a means of subjugation.
“We wear this so that, automatically, people know you are Muslim,” Habibo Salad said, a young woman who relocated to the U.S. from Somalia.
Salad, Farah, and Riji all believe that the practice of veiling is a personal choice for every Muslim woman. While it is usually required by a young girl’s parents while she is growing up, it is rarely enforced beyond that. But, they emphasize that practices vary from culture to culture, and that some cultures might have a stricter expectation for veiling.
Samsam, who relocated from Kenya and works as a nurse at Sanford, said she encounters questions about her hijab daily. She is one of the only Muslim women on her floor at the hospital, so a hijab is often an unfamiliar sight to patients.
“They ask you, ‘Why are you wearing that?’ They think you’re a terrorist. But, for me, I feel like I’m adjusting to being more sensitive too. Because, the only thing that they see is the media. They don’t see the other side,” Samsam said. “I come in between the two the media and him or her and then I explain . . . there’s Islam and there’s culture.”
Samsam said that educating others is the best way to handle these situations, because most people end up admitting that they were unaware of this information beforehand.
“You cannot add a fire to a fire,” Samsam said. “Somebody has to come in between.”
Another largely criticized practice in Islam’s treatment of women is that of arranged marriage. Critics say that Muslim families force their daughters into marriages without allowing them to make their own decisions about their life partners.
Riji said that this practice is simply outdated. She said it was much more common during the time of Muhammad, the Holy Prophet of Islam. While it is still practiced in some cultures, it is very uncommon in the U.S, Riji said.
“Look at the South! The Bachelor!” Farah said, laughing. She said that forms of “arranged marriage” occur all the time within American culture.
Riji explained that the expectations for dating in Islam are very different than what most Americans are used to. Physical contact with the opposite sex outside of the family is not allowed until marriage, which can make dating difficult.
“The best way, if you like somebody, they should come to your home with respect. [They should] go through your parents, and ask them,” Samsam said.
Riji said that this practice, which is merely a sign of respect and good intention, is often misconstrued as the “arranged” part of a marriage. She said it is simply a man asking a woman’s parents if he can get to know their daughter, which is usually followed by a conversation between the daughter and her parents to determine her opinion on the matter. Parents aren’t going to force you to get to know someone that you aren’t interested in, Riji said.
While living in Fargo, Riji met her husband through her brother, which she said is a common way to meet men as a Muslim woman by trusting the friends of your family. He lived in Uganda, and often talked on the phone with Riji’s brother, and sometimes she would interject. One night, he called her for the first time at 3:00 a.m. and she ignored the call, appalled that someone would disrupt her sleep.
A few months later, he emailed Riji, and her brother convinced her to give his friend a chance. They started talking on the phone for hours and hours, building a relationship as just friends. Eventually, Riji’s husband proposed the idea of marriage to her family, and Riji accepted.
“So, I told him, ‘This is who I am. This is what I do, and this is what I’m going for, and this is what I want to accomplish.’ So, he was very lenient and very okay with everything that I said,” Riji said.
After this, Riji flew from Fargo to Uganda to meet him for the first time. And three years later, she visited him a second time, and they finally got married.
Riji said that while her story is not a typical marriage situation for Muslim women, it is a good example of the choice and freedom that women have in making their own decisions.
When talking about these misconceptions of Islam, Omar often thinks about a project he did in school. He asked several people to leave the room and showed the remaining students an image of a downtown scene. He called one student back into the room and told him to study the picture and then explain it to the next person outside, and so on. The image changed immediately, and continued to change with every retelling.
“And that’s the whole thing, where the story changes so much by unfortunately misunderstanding. And people, in their head, try to add more here and more there,” Omar said.
If a person wants to do justice, the exact message ought to be delivered, and not whatever his or her culture teaches, Omar said. The “actual thing” the actual truth of Islam is the most important message.
For Omar, that message is easy: peace.
A SHARED COMMUNITY
Shire Mohamed had the opportunity to choose where he was relocated when he met with an officer at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. He had a friend already living in North Dakota, and told the officer that he wanted to live there.
“The officer was like, ‘North Dakota? What? Why? What’s wrong?’ and he told me to do a lot of research before I chose there,” Mohamed said. “He was saying all horrible things: below zero, only farms, what are you going to do.”
But, Shire Mohamed says he likes it here, and he’s not alone.
“I’ve been here for 35 years, and honestly, I could never pick a better community than the one we have over here in FargoMoorhead. People think I’m crazy for being here in this cold weather and everything, but they don’t realize the meaning of how good the people are,” Omar said.
He said that, overall, people in the F-M area are kind and supportive. He remembered a time during the tragedies of 9/11 and the blame placed on Muslims for the attacks when many of the churches in the area stood by the Muslim community. Omar said they were willing to come to the masjid during services to watch out for anyone who intended them harm and to provide protection.
Ahmed Mohamed said that it is part of Somali culture to move around a lot, which he views as both a blessing and a curse.
“I hope to stay here because all my family members are here. I hope I stay here forever,” Mohamed said.
Riji said that while some people might hold negative views of the Muslim community in their hearts, she never feels unwelcome.
“I never felt threatened wearing my hijab or anything like that. With everything that is going on in our media and our society right now, you would think, ‘Oh my gosh, who’s going to come behind me?’ You’re going to feel unsafe,” Riji said. “But, to me, I feel very safe . . . But, if you compare that [Fargo Moorhead] with other cities, then that’s a whole different story.”
Sahro and Samsam agree, calling the F-M community “peaceful.”
“Even though they say, ‘I thought Islam or you guys are terrorists,’ but at the end of the day, we finish up in good terms. That’s the best thing,” Samsam said.
This is not to say that the Muslim community in the F-M area goes without its challenges. There are instances every day of ignorance and cruelty, often in the form of hateful comments and gestures. A difficulty that many Muslims struggle with is coordinating the time for their five daily prayers with work or school.
Isudin Ibrahim, who relocated to the U.S. from Kenya when he was young, works at Eventide and said that everybody gets stuck on the “problem” of prayers.
“I just tell my bosses I need five minutes to go pray quick, and I’ll come right back to work,” Ibrahim said. “When it comes to your religion, you really can’t compromise at all.”
Shire Mohamed said that he’s had to quit a job before because of his employer’s refusal to accommodate prayer time. He said that even though it’s a violation of religious freedom, businesses will still fire people for it.
Mohamed said that some employers have asked him why he doesn’t pray later, when he’s done with work, and he explains that isn’t how it works. He said that more often than not, in his experience, employers will eventually understand and accept the practice.
“They see you are really committed to your faith, and it becomes not a big deal,” Mohamed said.
WITH OPEN ARMS
The Muslim community in Fargo-Moorhead is growing rapidly, especially with the number of New Americans relocating to the city, and the masjid is doing all it can to welcome everyone that walks through its doors.
“I’ve lived here for a long time enough to know pretty much every face that comes in the masjid here. So, if I see any different faces, I know this person just relocated here. Like, last week I saw several sisters who just came and sat in the back, and I went and said ‘salaam’ to them and ‘hi’ to them,” Riji said. “We just chatted for four minutes. And I told them, ‘You’re most welcome.’”
Omar said that the masjid has open doors for everybody, and wants to welcome new members and visitors just as he was welcomed into the community when he arrived.
Recently, one of Omar’s neighbors was talking to his family about some of the portrayals of Muslims in the news, and he said to them, “I have lived next to a Muslim family for the past 25 years. I could never pick any better neighbors or any better people than them.”
Islamic Society of Fargo-Moorhead 601 28th St S
Fargo, ND 58103
Visit their website at http://www.islamnd.org/
This piece was completed for the Investigating and Narrating the News course where all students reported on refugee issues and stories in Fargo-Moorhead.
Sydni Kreps is graduating in December 2016 from Concordia with majors in multimedia journalism and communication studies. She edits the Opinion section. You can often find her hiding in dark, quiet places reading a book by the light of her computer screen. She likes friends too. Sydni has also served as a copy and literary editor for Djembe: A Journal of Intercultural Affairs, and as an editorial intern for the Concordia Language Villages. If you misplace a comma, she will find it.