A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

the midwest melting pot: Iowa, home of the USA’s oldest mosque

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 21, 2006

Usually I read the Wall Street Journal while muttering to myself in disgust at the domestic and foreign policy preferences that color its articles.

This morning, I found an article that made me smile:

Mother Mosque

Michael Judge

Thursday, December 21, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa–Not far from the banks of the Cedar River and the concrete silos of the Quaker Oats plant, in a working class neighborhood adorned with Christmas lights and American flags, sits the oldest mosque in North America. Founded in 1934, and admitted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996, it’s not what you think of when you think of a mosque. There is no lofty minaret, no balcony for the muezzin to call the faithful to prayer.

There is, however, a place of worship that most resembles a one-room schoolhouse–a single-story, white clapboard box with plain black shutters. If it weren’t for the crescent-topped green vinyl dome and the canopy above the entrance bearing the words “The Mother Mosque of America: Islamic Cultural & Heritage Center,” one might easily mistake it for a modest, if not meager, Pentecostal church, which indeed it was for a brief stint in its history before being abandoned altogether.

A young boy on a bicycle cuts through the well-kept grounds of the mosque without giving it a second thought; he drops the bike and runs into a house across the street with Christmas decorations in the window. Just then, Imam Taha Tawil, a jovial man in his late 40s wearing khakis and a polo shirt, comes out to greet me: “Mr. Michael! You made it! Welcome! Welcome!” he says. “I hope my directions weren’t too hard to decipher!”

I don’t tell him I’ve been driving around the neighborhood for a good 30 minutes, half-lost, half-exploring–a few blocks away I came across the Jesus Church, a limestone building with a boarded-up bell tower that flies a banner saying simply, “Jesus Will Save You.”

As Imam Tawil and I approach the mosque I can just make out the words higher up on the green dome: “There is only Allah (God alone) to be worshiped, and Muhammad is his messenger.” I wonder which came first, the Jesus Church’s banner or the Mother Mosque’s dome?

But I’m not here to talk about any miniature clash of civilizations, etc. On the contrary, I’m here, at the invitation of Imam Tawil, to talk about something remarkable: the rebirth of the oldest mosque in North America and the Muslim-American community that made it happen.

“We’ve been here for four and now five generations,” says Imam Tawil, pointing to a panoramic black-and-white photo of dozens of early settlers; the picture dates to 1936 and shows an imam and priest, both of Middle Eastern descent, proudly shaking hands in the center. “We’re as old as the oak trees in Iowa,” he continues. “We’re part of the fabric of this great state. We’re Americans with dreams and aspirations.”

Many of the earliest Muslim settlers came to Cedar Rapids in the late 19th century from what is now Lebanon to work the farmland and raise crops of their own. As the community grew, it needed a permanent place to worship. Despite the hard times of the Great Depression, the local Muslim community pooled its resources and the “Mother Mosque” was dedicated on June 16, 1934.

Sixteen young men from the Muslim community here served their country in World War II; two of those men never made it home. Since then, Muslim-Americans from eastern Iowa have served their country in nearly every major military conflict. “At least 20 members of the community are currently enlisted in the military,” says Imam Tawil. “Several are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq right now.”

Cedar Rapids is now home to Muslims from some 30 countries, including Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq. After the 1991 Gulf War, dozens of Iraqi families–mainly Shiites who rose up against Saddam–found refuge here. Today, of the 700 Muslim families who call eastern Iowa home, more than 50 are from Iraq.

“Nearly all of these refugees are striving to become U.S. citizens,” says Imam Tawil, who emigrated from Jerusalem in 1983 and became a U.S. citizen in 1990. A Palestinian by birth, he says, “I have never had citizenship anywhere else but America. Every time I vote I feel so proud because I didn’t have this right in my home country.”

Around the same time that he became a U.S. citizen, Imam Tawil set out to renovate and restore the Mother Mosque. The building, which had gone vacant after housing a Pentecostal church and a teen center, was purchased in 1990; renovations began in 1991 and a grand opening was held in February 1992. The mosque serves mainly as a cultural and historical center since a modern Islamic Center was completed in 1971.

“Our main goal is to educate the public about Islam,” says Imam Tawil. Part of this education process was the founding, in the early 1990s, of the Linn County Inter-Religious Council. “We started the council to promote understanding and respect for all faiths,” says Cedric Lofdahl, who retired as the pastor of Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church in 1998. “Taha was very much involved. I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘It may be too late for our generation but we need to be talking together and understanding each other for the sake of our children.'”

That dialogue, says Pastor Lofdahl, helped the residents of Cedar Rapids deal with their grief and better understand the nature of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. “Because we had spent a lot of time together trying to educate the community regarding various faiths, and because we had become acquainted with people from the mosque, our immediate reaction was concern for those people.” Imam Tawil agrees. “Our outreach to the community–because we shared in the community’s happiness and sadness–these things helped us after Sept. 11.”

Both men say they remember flowers and cards and letters of support being dropped off in front of the Mother Mosque in the days after 9/11. “We are blessed with a community here that understands our endeavors and knows our struggles,” says Imam Tawil, as he prepares to leave his little office in a little mosque that has witnessed great things.

(http://www.opinionjournal.com/cc/?id=110009412)

One of the things I love about my home state is the way its inhabitants blend traditional conservatism with openness to the humanity of their fellows. For example, Iowans are big on traditional family values which, as I found at a GOP precinct caucus last winter, means supporting two parent households and stable partnerships, regardless of sexual orientation. Similarly, Iowans are deeply, predominantly Christian and yet from the early 1980s our school district insisted upon ‘winter break’ rather than ‘Christmas break’ in order to welcome students of all faiths. (It cut drinking straws from the school lunch budget at the same time, which produced a generation of students with the habit of drinking directly from the carton. I like to think of this as mere coincidence.)

I am so proud that the oldest mosque in this country is in Iowa.

022805.jpg

(Photo taken from a 2005 Youth Program News announcement on the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs website: http://exchanges.state.gov/education/citizens/students/news/2005/022805.htm.)

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5 Responses to “the midwest melting pot: Iowa, home of the USA’s oldest mosque”

  1. intlxpatr said

    Wow. I didn’t know this! Thank you, Little Diamond, and I think I will give it a shout out in my blog.

  2. […] My niece, Little Diamond, writes about The Oldest Mosque in America here. Fourth and fifth generations of Moslems in Iowa! […]

  3. […] is one of the flood victims. The mosque is called the “Mother Mosque” – I’ve blogged about it before, on happier occasions – and it is now facing a mother of a clean-up […]

  4. taboo said

    I’m glad there is a mosque in Iowa. My husband will be assigned to work in Iowa and I will fly to me him later in Dec 2008. I am looking forward to visit and pray in this mosque.

  5. […] is generally limited to food words. And Iowa has a long-standing Muslim population, as witnessed by Cedar Rapids’ Mother Mosque, but not necessarily an Arabic-speaking […]

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