Part 2 of 6. See Part 1 here.
By Umar Lee
Over the last two decades we’ve witnessed an explosion in the opening and building of new masjids in America. Most of these masjids exist in relative peace and quiet and seldom make the news. However, a growing number of masjids are facing backlash from non-Muslim neighbors or in some cases hostility to even getting a building permit.
Some of these issues are unavoidable. Other issues masjids are having could’ve been easily predicted when analyzing the demographic make-up and political inclinations of the areas of the masjids.
For the sake of this article we can divide America into five categories: urban, suburban, exurban, rural and college towns. As the vast majority of Muslims are living in metropolitan areas and most transition out of college towns let’s take the last two off the table.
I will use my hometown of St. Louis as an example. When I took shahadah in 1992 St. Louis had two masjids. Masjid al-Mu’Minun which is primarily African-American and a community affiliated with Imam W.D. Mohammed and the Islamic Center (now known as Masjid Bilal) which was known as “the immigrant masjid.” Today there are around 25 or more masjids in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area.
The first two new masjids were Dar al Islam and Masjid at-Taqwa wa-Jihad. Two different masjids, with two different demographics in two entirely different communities.
Dar al Islam was opened by the Islamic Foundation in the affluent western suburbs of St. Louis far from the city. From the old mosque of the foundation, Masjid Bilal (in Midtown St. Louis NOT downtown as some incorrectly say), it is around two hours on public transportation. The resources of the Foundation immediately went to the western suburbs and became unavailable to those without the wealth to live in the western suburbs.
This occurred at a time when more than one-fifth of the buildings in St. Louis were vacant. Houses were being sold for a few hundred dollars and sometimes even less. For the cost of purchasing the land and building a masjid in West St. Louis County Muslims could’ve literally built an entire neighborhood in the city of St. Louis with a masjid, school, housing and retail.
The choice to go to West St. Louis County mimicked the white-flight pattern that began in St. Louis in the 1950’s. In 1950 St. Louis city had over 800,000 residents. Today the city has just over 300,000 while 2.5 million are in the Metropolitan area. There are many factors for the loss of population in the city; but the biggest is the desegregation of city schools and neighborhoods which led to white-flight. The same is the case in many cities across America.
When asked why new masjid projects aren’t being undertaken in cities for the most part Muslim leaders point to crime and schools. I’ll argue that instead of taking a defeatist attitude these Muslim leaders could help lead their congregations by helping reduce crime and improve schools.
Masjid at-Taqwa wa-Jihad was started by a group of African-American Muslims who had been meeting at Masjid Bilal every Monday night. The masjid opened in a high-crime poor neighborhood in the heart of North St. Louis in the most violent year in the history of the city (1994). The goal was to bring Islam to the streets and take it precisely to the neighborhoods others were fleeing. With few resources and infighting between Muslims who favored a more Black Nationalist approach and those with a “Book and Sunnah” approach the new masjid split.
Whereas most practicing Muslims in St. Louis once knew one another, the openings of these masjids started a geographic split that has only continued with time followed by an ethnic split.
The suburban masjid, or Islamic Center as many preferred, became the idea for many and Muslims found comfort in places like Falls Church, VA, Bridgeview, IL and Irving, TX. After all Muslims value the safe streets and good public schools like everyone else.
The rise of exurbia added another dimension. Exurbs are those far-flung suburbs outside of suburbs even further away from the urban-core often surrounded by rural areas. Exurbs tend to be the most conservative and whitest part of any metropolitan area. Places where any informed citizen could tell you there’d likely be a problem opening a masjid in the area. These are places where most often whites have moved from more diverse suburbs and urban neighborhoods to be around other white people. A masjid isn’t what they had in mind when setting up shop in their new cul-de-sac.
Despite this exurbia is now home to a growing number of Muslims living in the heart of Trump’s America and Tea Party America and more and more there is friction. We see this in Fredericksburg, VA and Murfreesboro, TN amongst other places. Muslims should be able to open a masjid anywhere. The question is how good is setting up shop in an ocean of angry rednecks for your children, community-building, and your mental health? Bubba is gonna be Bubba. Open houses and press releases aren’t gonna change that.
Clustering and Community
Any community in America that has achieved vibrancy and a political power-base has done so through clustering it’s population. American-Muslims for some reason (outside of some traditional African-American jamaats) have decided this isn’t important. I even remember an ISNA speaker glowing about how spread out the Muslim community is.
There is no political power and “bloc vote” without clustering. It’s the same for Muslims as it is for everyone else. You want to affect city elections? Then the Muslim population must be clustered in certain neighborhoods/wards/districts. The same concept is true right up the line to presidential elections. If you want to affect the presidential elections you have to cluster in certain states and be a deciding vote.
However, it’s much deeper than politics. To build a social life for the Muslim community and especially for children you need to cluster. Historically this has been the case if you look at Muslim communities in New York, New Jersey, Philly, Northern Virginia, Chicago, Michigan, Atlanta, and now increasingly Texas. I’m not sure how anyone expects their kids to be comfortable as Muslims when they move to neighborhoods with few or no Muslims and send them to often hostile school environments.
The question is where do you cluster? My argument is its socially, politically and religiously irresponsible to do so in exurbia or exclusive suburbs.
It’s socially irresponsible because you’re exposing your families to intense Islamophobia while you are bolstering communities which themselves are pulling public resources from the more diverse urban-core. The hate for Muslims is largely coming from White conservative America. You can live in diverse communities and get few hassles from the city or your neighbors; but you’d rather live in opposition surrounded by people who hate you?
It’s politically irresponsible because it thins out the Muslim vote and thus the influence Muslim voters can have.
It’s religiously irresponsible for many reasons. Some are logistical such as going from places you can walk to the masjid to places you have to drive. The greater issue is as you pull Muslim resources into exurbia you limit the access Muslims of more moderate incomes have. We are already in an era of people paying large amounts of money to hear knowledge from celebrity imams and now you wanna add to that the burden of even getting to the masjid?
There is a lot of room for a happy middle ground. I view suburban Muslim communities such as Irving, TX as one of them. Suburban, but affordable, diverse and not far from the urban-core.
Opening a masjid isn’t a simple matter. It’s time for community leaders to consider these issues when deciding where to build and pay as close attention to this issue as they do to masjid parking (oh wait! ).
Glossary: Masjids: Mosques.; Shahadah: Declaration of faith.; Jamaats: Movements.
Umar Lee is an author and freelance writer from St. Louis now based out of Dallas. He may be contacted atUmarlee@gmail.com and found at Twitter @STLAbuBadu