Local Muslims say stereotypes against them still persist: disdainful looks, sneering comments and water-cooler jokes. But they also note progress is being made as people of different faiths learn more about what Muslims believe, and as Muslims themselves get more involved in the community. And they express hope that with Barack Obama in the White House, that tolerance, and the learning curve, will grow.
It was an early morning for Driss El Akrich. But armed with Moroccan green tea and joined by his wife, Amina, in front of a television set, it was a moment he had been eagerly anticipating.
President Barack Obama was in Cairo last month, giving a major speech to the Muslim world. The speech reverberated across the world to Springfield, home to about 300 Muslim families from 28 countries.
For El Akrich, a doctoral candidate in the public administration program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Obama hit all the right notes: Speaking in a tone of respect; quoting the Quran, the Torah and the Bible; and even mentioning El Akrich’s native Morocco as the first country, in 1777, to publicly acknowledge the newly sovereign United States.
El Akrich, who came to the United States in 2002 as part of the Fulbright exchange program, says it’s an emerging moment for Springfield Muslims whose efforts are boosted by Obama.
“It was a change in paradigm,” El Akrich says one evening in the fellowship hall of the Islamic Center of Greater Springfield’s masjid, or mosque, on Stanton Avenue. “Rather than focusing on tension, (Obama) has shifted the focus on common interests and mutual respect.”
Local Muslims say stereotypes against them still persist: disdainful looks, sneering comments and water-cooler jokes. But they also note progress is being made as people of different faiths learn more about what Muslims believe, and as Muslims themselves get more involved in the community.
And they express hope that with Obama in the White House, that tolerance, and the learning curve, will grow.
In Cairo, El Akrich points out, the president cited Islam’s long tradition of tolerance and how Muslims are part of a fabric of a diverse country. Obama mentioned his own familial ties with Islam — his father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims — and how as a boy in Indonesia he heard “the call of the azan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk.”
Baker Siddiquee, a Muslim and economics professor at UIS, says Muslims will want to see Obama’s words put into concrete actions, including his support for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“(Muslims) see this as the definition of the relationship between themselves and the West,” Siddiquee says.
Leila Hosseinali, 31, met her husband, Habib, in Iran in 2001. Habib operates the Garden of Eatin’ restaurant in downtown Springfield. Leila, lead teacher at Hazel Dell School, is a second-generation Muslim living in Springfield — her father is from Iran and her mother an American who converted to Islam.
Such second-generation Muslims may know better how to navigate political and governmental systems, which may seem arcane to their parents and grandparents, and they may be less encumbered by citizenship issues.
But that doesn’t mean they’re immune to some of the repercussions, especially post-Sept. 11, Hosseinali says.
“I remember co-workers asking me if they wanted to drive me home (because of feared reprisals),” she says.
Beth Ahmed of Springfield says she received a visit at work from FBI agents inquiring about her husband, Junaid Ahmed, who is from Pakistan, the day after the Sept. 11 attacks. At that time, he was trying to get his U.S. citizenship, a process that ultimately took more than 10 years. Ahmed said she was shocked by the visit’s brazenness and thoroughness — FBI officials already had detailed travel and phone records, and asked about individuals at the Springfield masjid.
“(In the end), we couldn’t pinpoint anything other than he was a male Muslim from Pakistan,” Beth Ahmed says.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, one of Ahmed’s then-teenage daughters, wearing the traditional hijab head covering, was verbally accosted in a Springfield mall.
“(The man) yelled, ‘Arab, you need to go home,’ and he kept yelling at her, with two little children on either arm,” Ahmed recalls.
One of the more notable incidents Muslims remember was when the Islamic Society of Greater Springfield’s masjid, or mosque, in an unincorporated area of Springfield, burned in a suspicious fire in 1995. The blaze was connected to the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing six weeks earlier (a bombing committed by a non-Muslim), and the fire remains unsolved.
However, local Muslims now have a place to worship on Stanton Avenue. And the fire paved the way to groundbreaking hate-crime legislation and forged ties between the Muslim community and other faith groups that are still evident.
The Islamic Center of Topeka, Kan., has about 200 members, according to Imam Omar Hazim. The city, a little larger than Springfield and also the state’s capital, may have escaped some of the backlash of events such as Sept. 11 because Muslim leaders like Hazim had worked tirelessly in the community, including its interfaith circles.
“Sometimes being known in the community and known by the community is certainly an advantage,” Hazim said during a recent phone interview.
Springfield Muslims have had a presence in movements such as the Greater Springfield Interfaith Association. Driss El Akrich has become a leading voice in the community through Leadership Springfield and other groups.
In May, local Muslims helped organize and volunteered at an Illinois Muslim Action Day, advocating for issues from public education funding reform to green technology.
“There’s a sense (local Muslims) should be participating more in coordinating activities at the capitol,” El Akrich says.
Debunking some stereotypes can gain traction at more personal levels, says Leila Hosseinali, 30.
“Just in the restaurant, people ask where Habib is from. It’s an opportunity to talk about Iran and Iraq with everyday people. To talk is our responsibility as Muslims, to speak the truth,” she says.
Beth Ahmed says her friends and co-workers know her as an American first, but she’s more than willing to talk about Islam. She converted to the faith about five years ago.
“They’ll ask, ‘Who is Allah?’ or ‘What are angels?’ I don’t know if I’ve ever heard my husband (Junaid) say that someone from the community came up and asked him about being a Muslim,” she says.
Ahmed, 46, a call-center attendant for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, says misperceptions about women and Islam come from cultural adaptations and from the media.
“Islam sets down very clear roles for women and men but gives the woman absolute rights over her decisions (like work),” Ahmed says. “Islam doesn’t repress women, nor does wearing the hijab.”
Both of Ahmed’s daughters — Natasha, 22, now living in Denver, and Afiyah, 19, of Springfield — wore the hijab, though Afiyah no longer wears it. At one point, Ahmed says, Natasha considered wearing the niqab, a fuller face veil.
“In a smaller community (like Springfield) where you’re the center of attention, that’s a daunting task younger generations are trying to find a way through,” says Driss El Akrich. “But we are part and parcel of the community and trying to do the best to increase understanding and decrease misunderstanding.
“My wife wears the hijab, but my policy is live life on my terms, to go to restaurants, to go to parks. I sometimes try to consciously look at people and read facial expressions. I don’t see anything suspicious.”
Hope for the future
If nothing else, Leila Hosseinali envisions the Obama administration moving away from the cowboy rhetoric that branded Muslims as terrorists.
“In his speech, (Obama) wasn’t accusing this person or that person, or coming out with an ‘axis of evil’ like (President George W.) Bush did,” she says. “To speak with so much respect ... Muslims have been disrespected by the government and by some U.S. citizens, unfortunately, for the last several years,” she says.
When UIS’s Baker Siddiquee talks about Obama’s tone, respect and body language at the Cairo speech, he’s not giving out style points. The veteran commentator on economics and world events for Voice of America and other news outlets says those particulars are under the microscope on the world stage.
“That he brought up past misunderstandings (toward Islam) and showed respect of other people and beliefs and opinions, I believed that played an important role, that this will be a significantly different approach (by this administration),” says Siddiquee, a native of Bangladesh who has lived in Springfield since 1987.
What’s missing, Siddiquee and others believe, is that communities like Springfield often don’t face head-on the issue of stereotyping groups such as Muslims. Though extremist thinking can’t be eliminated, Siddiquee says, “the hope is you don’t create the environment to give them the scope to fire things up.”
Driss El Akrich says one speech can’t eradicate years of mistrust on both sides.
“But it’s time for action, for healing the mistrust,” he says. “People I talk to are hopeful, and hopeful the mistrust will go away.
“Muslims are integrating into communities. That’s my vision for future generations: understand your religion, but become part of the society, integrate. And when (the president) asks them to do community service, yes, that’s part of it.
“To value the Muslim constituency (like Obama did in his speech) and to ask them to contribute to this great nation, I think that’s a great recognition.”
Steven Spearie can be reached at (217) 622-1788 or email@example.com.
The president speaks
Following are excerpts from a June 4 speech delivered by President Barack Obama in Cairo:
"The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars ... Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights ...
So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end ...
America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security — because we reject the same thing that people of all faith reject: the killing of innocent men, women and children."