Bridging the divide

Celebrating 20 years in West Chester Twp, the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati continues its community outreach efforts.

Shakila Ahmad came to Cincinnati as a 9-year-old girl and remembers worshiping in people’s homes instead of a full-fledged mosque.

“I could count on one hand the number of Muslim families that I knew in this region,” Ahmad said.

Over the decades, the region’s Muslim community expanded and prayer services moved to a small house on Fairview Avenue near Deaconess Hospital, then to a larger home in Clifton’s Gaslight District that eventually was enlarged to become the Clifton Mosque.

Ahmad’s children started Sunday school there but finished it in West Chester Twp. at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, which this weekend celebrates 20 years on 18 highly-visible acres between Interstate 75’s Cincinnati-Dayton Road and Tylersville Road exits.

“It’s reaffirming and heartwarming to understand the vision of our forefathers and our elders was really right on (the) mark in terms of wanting and investing in an institution which seemed way too large, way too expansive and to some people a bit ostentatious as really the hallmark of the Islamic Center here in this region,” said Ahmad, president of the board for the Islamic Center.

The center has served the local Muslim community by providing a place to worship, learn and grow spiritually and educationally, as well as serving as a gathering place for families and the community, Ahmad said.

Umama Alam, a member of the center, said it is “a second home” to many.

“A lot of people move to Cincinnati because of the center,” she said. “It’s a really fundamental and very important part of our lives.”

Center members also work on various social issues, charitable projects and educational programs, both in the Muslim community and in the community-at-large.

The Islamic Center’s mosque and education center were part of the original plan for the site, but founder and major funder the late Ahmad Samawi realized that the community needed an actual community center and worked to add that as the site was being developed.

Added since then are 20 classrooms to accommodate the growing Sunday school needs as well as the independently run El' Sewedy International Academy of Cincinnati Center.

The West Chester site provided not only the space needed for the Islamic Center’s campus, but also an ideal spot along I-75, Ahmad said.

“The community, at the time, wasn’t residing in West Chester,” she said. “They were on the northwest side of town, some were on the east side of town, some were south. People were coming from all over, so easy access was critical.”

Also a factor was the perception of growth and being in an area where that growth would help attract people, Ahmad said.

“This region has been, for quite some time, one of the fastest growing if not the fastest growing,” she said. “I think the Islamic Center has contributed to that growth (via) the diversity and the richness of people that come here. We have highly professional people, a lot of physicians, a lot of engineers, a lot of business professionals who look at the center as an asset before they determine to accept a job offer or not.”

Islamic Center's Shakila Ahmad talks about the center's 20th anniversary and its role in both the Muslim and non-Muslim community.

The 99 names of God are written in Arabic script across a wall of the mosque at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.

The 99 names of God are written in Arabic script across a wall of the mosque at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.

Facing challenges together through dialogue

Dr. Salem Foad, who helped found the Islamic Center along with Samawi and former board president Dr. Inayat Malik, said the center started as a place for Muslims to meet, pray, learn, get to know one another and help the community. But the center’s founder also wanted to ensure it also was available to the non-Muslim world, so they started offering an open house on the first Saturday of each month.

“From the very beginning, we wanted to make sure that it was welcoming to non-Muslims, as well,” said Foad, an Islamic studies scholar, author and lecturer.

That openness has done much to dispel misconceptions about Islam and Muslims, because getting to know someone by talking to them face-to-face goes a long way to foster understanding, Ahmad said.

“You understand them at that human level and you realize how much you actually do have in common and then you also have the opportunity to ask whatever questions it is that are on your mind,” she said. “If we provide a non-threatening, safe, welcoming environment that allows people to ask the questions that are on their mind, it’s best for the community as a whole.”

Despite the Saturday open houses and scheduled weekday tours, reaching out to the community has sometimes been a challenge.

“People have very negative perceptions … about Islam and Muslims based on heinous acts by people who claim to be Muslims and are doing things that are completely un-Islamic or people who have their own political agenda and biases,” Ahmad said. “They want to represent Islam when they know nothing about Islam.”

Ahmad estimates that the Islamic Center has managed to reach more than 75,000 people in its 20-year history.
Countless tours have seen people arrive with a look of fear, skepticism or “a very antagonistic point of view” and leave looking relieved, comforted and enlightened, she said.
“They say, ‘I really had a lot of misconceptions when I came here and I really appreciate the opportunity to be able to candidly ask and I realize how much we have in common,’” she said.

Mother of Mercy High School, a 100-year-old all-girls Catholic, private school on Cincinnati’s West Side, has been coming to the Islamic Center for tours for the past 15 years and holds joint programs with the center, according to religion teacher Robert Bonnici.

“If we’re going to live together on this one planet, we need to have the respect and reverence for each other’s faith and religion,” Bonnici said.

Leah Henkel, one of 125 Mother of Mercy students who toured the Islamic Center this week, said she left impressed that Muslims are so dedicated that they pray five times a day.

“I know as a Catholic that I’m not praying five times a day, so maybe if I prayed five times a day, I’d have a closer relationship with God,” Henkel said.

The 99 names of God are written in Arabic script across the walls and balcony of the mosque at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.

The 99 names of God are written in Arabic script across the walls and balcony of the mosque at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.

Reaching out following Sept. 11, 2001

Like any immigrant community, American Muslims face not only misconceptions and fear, but also marginalization and the perpetuation of stereotypes, Ahmad said.

Much of that was present for the Muslim community prior to Sept. 11, 2011 but came to forefront immediately thereafter, she said.

While the Islamic Center spoke out against the atrocities perpetrated on 9/11 as being “completely against” the tenets of Islam and being a Muslim, and continues to do so with other acts of terror, there are factions of the community-at-large that falsely equate being a Muslim with being a terrorist, an outsider and anything other than an upstanding U.S. citizen, Ahmad said.

“I came here as a child,” she said. “My kids were born and raised here. American culture is the one we know best and that we’re most comfortable with, but yet at the same time, post 9/11, Muslims are in a position where quite often they have to prove their Americanism and patriotism, or have slurs directed to them about ‘GoHome.’ ‘Where are you going to go home to?’ I say. ‘Cleveland? Chicago? Where do you want me to go?’”

For those who are old enough to remember the period before Sept. 11, 2001 the period after “has been the most difficult in our adult lives,” Ahmad said.

That’s manifest itself in just about every aspect of life, from children being pushed against lockers in schools, women in traditional hijab head-coverings being told to “go back home” to people with Muslim-sounding names not being offered jobs.

The Islamic Center itself has seen its share of threatening phone calls, xenophobic letters and broken windows.

“Thank God, they’re not daily, they’re not weekly, they’re not monthly, but at the same time, it’s always in the back of our minds,” Ahmad said.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias creeps into many people’s minds via “everything they’re inundated with” from TV news and political candidates to ignorant neighbors who have no clue about any religious community, much less their own, she said.

“It creates a sense of fear and discomfort within people who do not have or don’t take the opportunity to get the facts and get to know people,” Ahmad said.

Foad said the Islamic Center actively monitors its own members to ensure it would be aware if anyone deviates from Islam’s message of peace.

“It is our job to correct this and spot that and if necessary, report it to the authorities,because we don’t want anything bad to happen,” he said, noting that when an act of violence is perpetrated by someone who is Muslim how the news media labels it an “Islamic act.”

“It has nothing to do with religion, it is a bad act of individuals who claim to belong to that,” he said.

Foad said it’s the Islamic Center’s job to present a balanced view of Islam and to be there as a source for people to go to when they have questions.

“It is a reference center for the whole community about Islam and Muslims,” Foad said.

Forging partnerships with faith

Southwest Ohio's Muslim community extends north to Dayton, south to Northern Kentucky, west to Lawrenceburg, Ind., and east to Anderson Twp., Ahmad said.

“It’s quite broad,” Ahmad said. “More and more people, because Mason and West Chester have been growing, come from the Mason-West Chester area.”

The Muslim-American community is not just about what life is like in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt or Pakistan, “it’s really coming to the roots of what Islam is all about and learning to live in a pluralistic society where you can maintain your identity and at the same time get along harmoniously in the greater community that you live,” she said.

Rabbi Gary Zola of Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, a frequent partner with the Islamic Center, said it deserves credit for its outreach efforts “doing so much” to heal wounds in the wake of 9/11 and other terror attacks.

“This was, I think an act of courage,” he said. “If we go back to that time, understandably the nation was beside itself in upset, anger and frustration. Much blame was being flung in all directions, and their response was to organize themselves with the underlying idea that if people come to know who we are, they will understand that we’re American citizens, too,” he said.

Foad said the Koran teaches that God willed diversity into the world and it is our job to learn from one another.

“We come to solve problems with different approaches, we have different backgrounds and ideas, and it is this collective ideology that we have that makes us better,” he said.

The Rev. Michael Graham, president of Xavier University, said the first time he visited the Islamic Center for a Friday prayer service in 2003, the experience was “fraught with symbolism” in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks.

“I had never been inside a mosque before in my life,” he said. “So on the one hand it was helpful to see it demystified. These are ordinary people doing an ordinary thing of worshiping God in a way that’s important to them.”

Graham said the experience had a powerful effect on him.

“The deep faith of these people was an inspiration for me to take my faith as seriously as they taketheirs,” Graham said. “I felt myself inspired to represent the best of my tradition in a way that would make me worthy of being in the presence of somebody like Dr. Foad or (Inayat) Malik.”

“Somehow I realized I didn’t have any special corner on God’s work. It was a wonderful sort of a broadening for my own understanding,” he said.

The Islamic Center’s mission of outreach and community involvement is important because “reaching out across the lines that might otherwise divide us is pleasing to God.”

James Buchanan, director of the Edward B. Brueggeman Center for Dialogue at Xavier University since 2003, said the Islamic Center and Cincinnati’s Muslim community are willing to work on a variety of issues, whether they relate to social justice, refugees, women’s issues and more.

“They have been a welcoming and open center and community within our community all along,” Buchanan said. “I think that took on an added importance to them after 2001, when a lot of Muslim communities receded into a kind of enclave where they felt backed into a corner and became closed. The community at the Islamic Center really took the opposite approach.”

Foad said the Islamic Center and its practices emphasize to both Muslims and non-Muslims the importance of faith translating into acts of kindness, honesty, sincerity and outreach.

“It doesn’t make any difference if you are a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew or a Buddhist … faith is supposed to make you a better human being,” Foad said. “If it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with your faith.”