Right at home: U.S. mosques are often more Middle America than Middle East

By Max Perry Mueller

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, July 6 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Hajira Abdi attends a prayer service at the Khadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley City on Friday, June 29, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Tucked into the corner of a series of industrial parks in West Valley City, the Khadeeja Islamic Center’s golden dome and minaret might strike some passersby as out of place, even foreign to this American suburb where the dominant architectural features are grey box stores and white church steeples.

To be sure, the Islamic Center exterior looks arabesque. Completed in 2002, the mosque “was built to face Mecca” in Saudi Arabia, the center of the Islamic world, explains Muhammed Shoayb Mehtar, the imam who leads the thriving Islamic Center of Greater Salt Lake whose main gathering place is the Khadeeja mosque in West Valley City.

Yet what goes on inside the mosque is just as much Middle America as it is Middle East. The several hundred Muslims who gather here each Friday — the Muslim holy day — come together to worship, pray and socialize with their fellow believers, not unlike churchgoers and other believers across the country.

The Khadeeja Islamic Center also serves as an important gateway into American culture for this very international community, whose regular attendees hail from 30 to 35 different countries. Before services, and at community festivals, adults converse in English, the communal tongue in such a diverse population. Newly arrived immigrants learn about American ways from native-born or long-time American residents. School aged-children get tutoring help to prepare them for the rigors of American colleges. And once a year, the whole community goes to the Lagoon Amusement Park, a summer rite of passage for many Utah families.

In fact, Imam Mehtar, a slender, fair-skinned man who sports a bushy beard and a long flowing robe, embodies the transitional nature of many of his fellow immigrant Muslims who gather each Friday at Khadeeja: they retain the key elements of the cultures of their countries of birth — their religious identity in particular — while they create a new identity as Americans. With an accent inflected by his South African origin and his American education at the University of Southern California, Mehtar says that in the mosque, worshippers not only learn how to be good Muslims, but also how to be good Muslims in America. “Whether we’re Pakistani, Somali or Saudi, we’ve come to this country because we want a better life for ourselves. And that is what happens in America, including for (members of) our faith.”

Since 9/11, no religious community’s place in the United States has been more hotly contested than that of American Muslims. From fights over the construction of mosques in places as varied as rural Tennessee and lower Manhattan, to congressional hearings over fears of “homegrown” Muslim radicals, many Americans express ambivalence to the idea of welcoming Muslims as their neighbors. For the Muslim community in America however, this ambivalence is not shared. In fact, most American Muslims feel right at home in America. And because America guarantees their right to “choose to be religious in the manner they wish,” explains Mehtar, perhaps they are even more at home in America than in many predominately Islamic countries.

On Fridays at 1 p.m., the Khadeeja Islamic Center’s parking lot fills up quickly with well-used minivans, as well as late-model, luxury sedans. There are a handful of yellow cabs too. But because Muslims in America are the second most highly educated religious group in the country (a recent Gallup poll found that 40 percent of them have college degrees, compared to 61 percent of Jews and 29 percent of Americans overall), Muslims are not just America’s cabbies. They are also the nation’s college professors, doctors and engineers. And this isn’t just the case for Muslim men. Muslim women achieve college education at even higher rates than their male counterparts.

Muslims in America are not just economically diverse, but also racially diverse.