Muslims in Cedar Rapids Tell the Story of Their Faith

Feb 8, 2017

In the days immediately following the election of Donald Trump in November, Muslims in Cedar Rapids said they needed to do something to spread the word about their faith. Since the president assumed office, they say this need has become imperative. 

The Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

Around 20 people gathered in a lecture hall on the campus of Coe College in Cedar Rapids last Saturday afternoon to learn a little something about the Prophet Muhammad.

“The early events in the life of Muhammad, he was an orphan, he lost both his parents at an early age, around six or seven,” says the instructor, Hassan Selim. He's a native of Egypt and the imam at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids. Since the November election of Donald Trump, he says leaders of the Muslim community in Eastern Iowa have intensified their efforts to explain their faith to the public.

“We’re trying to focus more on finding the common ground with as many friends at allies as possible,” he says. 

In support of this educational mission, the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County invited Selim to present a series of four lectures on Islam and its founder, Muhammad. The president of the Council is Charles Crawley.

“Most Christians, including myself, are abysmally ignorant of the Prophet Muhammad," he says. "So, this was a good opportunity to become more religiously literate.”

Muslims in Cedar Rapids have a long, rich history. They started settling here in the late 1800s. The city is home to the Mother Mosque of America, the longest standing mosque in the country. Muslims number around 5,000 in the area and make up some of its most notable business leaders. Selim says people need to know this.

“Now more than any time before people need to know Muslims are not a new group that is just coming on the scene and imposing themselves on American culture and the American way of life,” he says.

The job of explaining this to the citizens of Cedar Rapids has been complicated by the actions and language of President Trump. During the campaign, he called for creating a registry of all Muslims. One of his first executive actions as president was to impose a ban on travel to the U.S. from seven predominately Muslim nations. The executive director of the Iowa chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, Miriam Amer, says she has seen the consequences of Trump’s statements. She wears a hijab to cover her head.

“We’ve had a lot of people who have been attacked, discriminated against, mostly women because those of us who wear the scarf, we’re the flagships of our faith and you can see us coming,” she says.

Amer has a word of advice for the president. She says he needs to ignore people who spew hate.

“If he would just sit down and listen to the Muslims, instead of these people with predisposed ideas and hatred, then maybe we could get through to him and he would change his mind,” she says.

Among the groups working to establish a dialog among people of various religious and ethnic backgrounds is the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission. Its executive director is LaSheila Yates.

“When we start to see each other like ourselves, when we start to see each other as the same, but also recognize the differences, even the challenges of others, we humanize them,” she says.

Imam Hassan Selim explains the finer points of Islam during a break of a lecture on the Prophet Muhammad at Coe College.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

This is the point Hassan Selim and Miriam Amer make as they meet with school kids, church groups, law enforcement officials and others. Such outreach efforts take time away from family and work, but Amer says they have become necessary.

“You know, if I can reach just one person that’s a success,” she says.

Amer says among the things Muslims believe is if you break bread with someone, by the end of the meal, you’re friends.