I Am Muslim, I Am America

Tucson's Islamic population helps define our community

It was in Iraq in 2007 when Watheq Al-Obaidi began hearing reports about al-Qaida murdering fellow Iraqis and dumping bodies in the garbage, and putting explosives in those bodies, set to go off while their families buried them—killing more people, causing more tragedy.

Al-Obaidi says followers of groups like al-Qaida often evoke the Quran, but he knows better and the actions left him with little choice but to speak out. However, once he did, he paid a hefty price that left seven members of his family dead and forced him to flee his home country with his wife and three children.

The family arrived in Tucson from Iraq on May 17, 2009. Al-Obaidi first worked here as a security guard, and then as an Arabic language and Islamic studies instructor at Pima Community College. Then in February of this year, Al-Obaidi was hired to work as the imam or religious leader for the Islamic Center of Tucson.

In an office in the Islamic Center, located a block west of the UA campus on First Street, Al-Obaidi sits flanked by Jamil Anouti, the center's new executive board president, and Saad Ansari, a consultant from Florida who came to the center last year to help the board strengthen its presence in the community.

Anouti and Ansari take turns interpreting for Al-Obaidi, who speaks mostly Arabic, as he discusses Iraq, Islam and identifying with the center's growing membership of refugees who often share a similar story to their imam's.

Friday evening prayers are the most popular at the center's mosque, with sometimes more than 700 men representing a variety of ethnicities and cultures standing side by side praying.

This is Al-Obaidi's new home and new mosque—an American mosque.

In Iraq, Al-Obaidi was a well-known imam, and speaking out against al-Qaida and murder was considered dangerous.

"They killed some of his brothers and they bombed his office and house, and more members of his family," Anouti interprets. "All because he was very vocal about al-Qaida. Every place he would go (when) the opportunity presented itself, he would speak out against al-Qaida."

Like other refugees new to the United States, Al-Obaidi says his first concern was the language, then finding work, a growing worry for new refugees, who only receive three months of financial assistance.

"I was fortunate, definitely. This was my job in Iraq, and all the people, all humans are the same here or Iraq, trying to build a relationship with God. That's my work. To help them do that."

But even while discussing his good fortune, Al-Obaidi keeps in mind the people he left behind in Iraq—dead relatives, as well as those still alive. Al-Obaidi questions the U.S. immigration policy that allowed him to come into the country, while his brother, an engineer, remains in Iraq and struggles to get a visa out.

"I don't know why I got to come and he didn't," he says.

Jamil Anouti is described by other members of the center as young and dynamic. The 23-year-old says he's excited about leading the center, which was created in the 1970s by young UA students like him just looking for a room on campus for prayers.

However, Anouti is no longer a student and works as a partner in a medical billing company. Sporting a very short beard, Anouti is dressed in black slacks, a white dress shirt, a purple tie and dress shoes.

"This has always been my mosque," says Anouti, who was born at University Medical Center and graduated from BASIS School.

"Growing up in America I've always had an interesting relationship between my secular identity and my religious identity. Being president has also been interesting—I have to tango between these two identities and my responsibilities.

"I don't have to fit this template people have of me in order to pursue my religion and have a secular identity," he says.

Last year, the center's board of directors made an effort to get out into the greater community more. At Tucson Meet Yourself, Anouti and other young Muslims stood at a booth behind a banner that said, "Ask a Muslim anything."

The response was positive, he says. Many people asked about specific Islamic beliefs. A few joked, asking about the weather.

The center continues to operate a free medical clinic run by Muslim doctors and other volunteers to provide health exams and screenings the last Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (See "Open Doors," June 3, 2010).

Although the center continues to participate in the annual Jewish-Muslim peace walk, organized by the center and Congregation Or Chadash and coordinated by other progressive synagogues in Tucson, the center's board wants to form more projects and relationships with other religious communities in Tucson.

"One great example of working together is the help we've received from local Lutheran churches," Anouti says. "Many of them help a lot of refugees in Tucson, and when they find people or families who are Muslim they help them find us and let them know that there is a mosque in Tucson."

The increasing Islamaphobia since the Gulf War and Sept. 11 is one reason Anouti and other board members believe Tucson Muslims need to do more with their neighbors.

"Muslims who have paid attention to what's been going on in America realize they can't live in this isolated bubble anymore ... now is the time to get out there and we need to go the extra step to make our neighbors feel comfortable," Anouti says.

"And that's a key part in Islam—honor your neighbor."

Saad Ansari, the consultant from Florida who came to the center last year to help the board strengthen its presence in the community, was working in Virginia last year for an Arabic and Islamic institute when he was invited to Tucson.

"I would describe this as an infant community," says Ansari. "It's just beginning to get organized. They haven't developed programs, and there is no tradition; everything is fresh and green. ... I'd say a good example (of a more developed community) is the mosque in Sterling, Va. They have been there for several generations, they have a wonderful mosque, and they are involved in the community and have a good relationship with local lawmakers and politicians. They are on par with every other church and synagogue in terms of interfaith projects and they are a model for churches and synagogues, not the other way around."

That model, he says, is what the center in Tucson wants to become.

Ansari's counseling role in the mosque is working with new Muslims, a growing part of Tucson's Muslim community. His wife, who recently moved here from Great Britain, is a convert to Islam and studied under Timothy Winter, a well-known Islamic scholar who is also a convert. Ansari notes that in Islam converts aren't called converts, but "reverts," based on Islamic belief that everyone is born Muslim.

Ansari teaches several classes at the center on Muslim philosophy and beliefs, and about 80 percent of his students are new Muslims.

Alexander Gracia, a 22-year-old history student getting ready to transfer from Pima Community College to the UA, is one of Ansari's students.

Gracia was born in Los Angeles, but grew up near the border in Douglas where he was raised Catholic in a traditional Mexican-American home.

However, last month Gracia became Muslim.

"Actually, I've been an atheist most of my life," Gracia explains. "I didn't know anything about Islam. All I knew about was Christianity and the various sects, but two months ago I met a few Muslims. They were nice people, and they explained their faith and I started researching Islam myself.

"I met a few more Muslims and they were really chill people."

As Gracia started reading more about Islam, he started believing in its concepts and beliefs.

"I talked to Saad and I decided I should be Muslim," he says.

The same day he made that decision, he went into the mosque and in front of Ansari and a few witnesses he said, "I believe in Allah, and I believe in the last day and his angels. Mohammed is my prophet and it is my obligation to pray five times a day and I am not being forced to be a Muslim."

While the change in religion or even going from atheism to Islam may seem like a big move to others, Gracia says he feels the religion is compatible with Mexican and Latino culture with its emphasis on family, on getting married, on having faith in God and submission to God.

"Our people suffer a lot and we've been patient a long time and I think that Islam is a way to get out of that suffering," Gracia says.

Reaction from his family was divided. He says half are well-educated and know the history of the conquistadores and the forced conversions of the Aztecs by the Catholic Church.

"They understand. The other half is extremely Catholic, but I made a compromise with them. I told them I believe in one God, too. Jesus is a prophet of Islam and I promise to name my first kid Jesus."

Ansari says students like Gracia only add to the growing diversity of the Muslim community in Tucson and across the country. "This is not a homogenous community. There are people here who are Malaysian, Somali, Iraqi, Afghani, and there are American converts who are also Mexican and black. But we also have what many would expect, members who are Arabs and East Indian."

Ansari, who was born in Pakistan and came to the U.S. with his family when he was an infant, says he was born into Islam, but didn't practice until he was in college, after researching all world religions and philosophies.

In his classes, Ansari might discuss different Islamic beliefs, such as that everyone is born Muslim. Another important part of Islam that Ansari and others like to remind non-Muslims, especially Christians and Jews, is that the Quran has many references to Abraham, Moses, Jesus and even an entire chapter on the Virgin Mary.

However, one belief that differs from Christianity and Judaism is that God is merciful, not vengeful, so when Adam made a mistake in the garden, God forgave him.

"There was no original sin and every baby is born pure," Ansari says.

"You can think of Islam with a lower-case I and then with a capital I. The lower-case I is more the primordial religion—you know this, you know that when you are born there is one God ... something so simple. With an upper-case I it is Islam with all its laws and procedures."

Ansari anticipates he will return to the East Coast next year to work on a master's degree in political science, but continue to work in the Islamic community.

He's interested in getting more Muslims involved in the political landscape and help Muslims and non-Muslims understand that Muslims are part of the American historical fabric.

"It is time to change and recognize the contributions of Islam. ... We don't have to prove that we are Americans. As a matter of fact, we believe we can define what America is."

If the biggest stereotype is that all Muslims are terrorists, the next is that all Muslim women are oppressed.

Anyone with those beliefs hasn't met Durre Mubin Raina, who has called Tucson home the past 21 years.

Raina moved to Tucson from Pakistan with her parents when she was in high school. Now, she is married, has two children and recently opened a business called Trendz and Traditionz, a boutique that specializes in Indian and Pakistani women's fashions.

The store, in a building near her husband's medical practice, is filled with rows of colorful silk tunics, saris, scarves, caftans and costume jewelry. The store is young, having been open only for a few months. Raina says she's not sure if her clientele will end up being mostly other South Asian women, because most women in the Pakistani and Indian communities travel to their home countries often, bringing back suitcases full of clothes.

"No one has done business in my family; everyone is in engineering or a doctor," she says. But unlike other women she knows who travel back home and bring back clothes, Raina hasn't been back to Pakistan for almost 10 years. "There might be others out there who are like me."

The idea that people might find Muslim women oppressed in any way is ridiculous to Raina. According to Islamic law, women must receive an inheritance, not just men as was customary in the West (including Great Britain) not so long ago.

"Islamic law has brought women out to be equal to men. Women also have the right and power to give a judgment in the court as men do. God has given her so much importance. Whatever the culture or where she is from, a Muslim woman has rights and has a right to an inheritance, she's not just a worthless person at home," Raina says.

"The only thing negative (that comes from) the West that I have heard about is reaction when a woman goes out she covers herself, and that's not to draw attention to herself, to be modest. That has nothing to do with being oppressed."

Raina has an idea on how to change stereotypes people have of Muslims: more interfaith dialogue. She counsels her oldest daughter to be open about who they are and to remind people that there are more commonalities then differences.

"I have noticed a change in the community, but not at my children's school. I do know that for me, if I am dressed traditionally, people aren't as friendly as they used to be. That's one thing that's changed."

But she'd like that to change and for people to know "we are not any different," Raina says.

"I teach my children we must respect each other and not judge others for who they are."

Abdullah Mohammed, a 19-year-old Somali refugee who arrived in Tucson in 2009, is one of hundreds of African refugees now calling Tucson home. However, he winces a bit at the word "refugee," a term and state of mind he says he's eager to abandon. He recently received his green card, and is now working on becoming a citizen.

"Being a refugee is not permanent. I am permanent. This is my home," Mohammed says.

What's made the transition to Tucson so good for Mohammed was the existence of the center and mosque. Mohammed left Somalia as an infant when his family escaped the violence of the country's civil war and took refuge in Kenya.

"So many families had to move or you'd be killed. It had a peace in Kenya, not so perfect, but it had a peace. But you're living in refugee status, and that's not the same, not the same life as my parents had, although I could go to school," Mohammed says.

"This looks more like home, but the mosque makes it more of a home. I remember that one of the first things I did when we settled in Tucson was take the bus to the mosque for prayers on Friday. When you have a mosque in the city you live in you feel settled. You can always come here and it feels serene and is a source of tranquility for me and my family."

Mohammed is studying to memorize the Quran in a class at the center, and he's taking Arabic classes at the UA, trying to figure out what he wants to study more of and what he wants to do with his life.

During meetings at the center, Mohammed was invited to discuss how the mosque can reach out and help more Muslim refugees moving to Tucson. His advice is to go directly to those refugees—Somali, Iraqi and a growing number of Afghani—and sit down with mothers, sons and daughters and ask, "What is going on in your life and what do you need?"

"One of the things I first noticed about this place is that it is very, very welcoming," he says. "In the mosque we have different views of Islam and different backgrounds or cultures. We didn't grow up in the same place, yet we all pray together and we are all Muslim."

Shiraz Ali Peera says he thinks negative attitudes about Islam will change and that even an Islamic renaissance is around the corner, where people will recognize the positive aspects of the faith and Islam's contributions to civilization.

Ali Peera, a longtime Tucson real estate broker, is of Indian descent but was born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania before heading to Great Britain for college. He knows first-hand that focusing on affinities rather than differences often shows people that most stereotypes of Islam are untrue.

"In every culture and religion you have the progressive minds and the conservative minds—the orthodoxy," Ali Peera says. "The orthodox element has always tried to negate the true essence of Islam. This is why we see, for example, all these bombings, but that's not Islam and it never has been."

Other examples of extremists are those on the other side, such as Terry Jones, the Florida preacher who dubbed Sept. 11, 2010 as International Burn a Koran Day and called everyone around the world to burn the Muslim holy book. Ali Peera says he wonders if the preacher knew how many references to Jesus are in the Quran, and if he did, would he still want to burn the book.

"We all have these extremist forces who have overtaken the moderate forces, but most progressives realize that no imam in the United States has called to burn the Bible; that has to say something," he says.

When Ali Peera reflects on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he remembers the good rather than any threats made against the Islamic community. He remembers then-UA President Peter Likins and Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup joining Muslims at the center in prayer, and he fondly recalls words of comfort given by Gabrielle Giffords when she was in the state Legislature.

"She came to us and said, 'If there is anything we can do, let me know. We want to protect you and make sure you don't get attacked and the mosque doesn't get vandalized.'

"What really melted our hearts then was when we had a group from a local church show up that night and formed a prayer circle around the mosque to protect our mosque from being vandalized. The support of the community in many ways has always been phenomenal."

In Africa, Ali Peera says the religious leader of their community sent out a letter to all the Muslims reminding them to educate their children, but more importantly that if they had daughters and sons, be sure to "educate your daughters first."

"We educate all of our children. I also tell every Christian I meet that we believe that Jesus is a prophet. As time goes by and more information is communicated, I think people will understand that we are not the enemy and that we are just like them, and that we want to live in peace and harmony," Ali Peera says.

As part of his work and interest in Tucson, Ali Peera is involved in 12 local organizations, such as Tucson Meet Yourself.

The result is that he's become a de facto representative of the Muslim community, also, without meaning to.

"In a small way if I make a difference in the eyes of people I meet from of all these organizations, if I presented a more serene image of Islam, then I've done my job," Ali Peera says.

"But there is more work to do. We have to have someone from all three religions get together and have some bigger and greater projects in unison, for the betterment of the community. That is what will change attitudes."