How Cedar Rapids sets an example of religious tolerance in a time of religious turmoil

Words and Audio by Megan Ellis
Photos by Brooke Haesemeyer
Graphic by Zoe Ekonomou

In a time when hostility and distrust toward Muslim communities and immigrants are on the rise, Cedar Rapids sets a different example.  

The city is Iowa’s second-largest and is a center for arts and culture in the eastern part of the state. Cedar Rapids is also an economic hub for Iowa, with an emphasis on agriculture and food processing — both Quaker and General Mills have factories in the area.

A vibrant green dome peeks out of an otherwise residential area. The small white building beneath seems perfectly at peace with the quiet neighborhood around it. This isn’t remarkable, considering it’s been there for nearly a century, making it the longest-standing mosque in North America. The city is also home to the first all-Muslim cemetery.

Inside, the Mother Mosque of America’s imam, Taha Tawil, offered us tea as he proudly told us about the vibrant history of the mosque. The basement walls are covered with old photos and newspaper articles about the mosque stretching back to when immigrants from the Ottoman Empire — modern day Syria and Lebanon — settled in the area in the 1880s.

“Amazing, you know, after the Trump winning, we got a lot of flowers and a lot of chocolates and some fruits on the steps of the mosque,” Tawil said. “So, we were really blessed to see how the community is supporting their neighbors.”

While other Muslim communities have felt threatened after the election of President Donald Trump, those in Cedar Rapids experienced a wave of support. Emails and letters poured into the mosque.  The mosque’s voicemail was filled with supportive neighbors reaching out to pledge their support to the Muslim community.

Imam Taha Tawil says the mosque received gifts and messages of support from non-Muslim neighbors after the election of President Trump.

Imam Hassan Selim acknowledged that the last few years have been tough on Muslim communities nationwide, and said that recent events, like the rise in hate crimes toward American Muslims and Trump’s executive order to ban travel from predominantly Muslim countries, have further stressed the value of diversity.  Selim noticed that these events didn’t divide the Cedar Rapids community but instead further unified the city.

“And what’s happening is actually going to make it (the support for the Muslim community) even more so,” Selim said. “We’re going to value this diversity more, value it more, and work together”

Muslim families in Cedar Rapids have helped emphasize diversity in the community. Cedar Rapids has an imam on its team of volunteer chaplains. Its city council meetings, which always begin with a prayer, are frequently led by an imam.

The walls of the Mother Mosque’s basement are lined with photos of the mosque’s past congregations stretching back to 1935.

The prominence of the Muslim community seems natural in Cedar Rapids given its long history — there has been a Muslim presence in the area for over a century.  The descendants of the original settlers and more recent immigrants have integrated into the fabric of Cedar Rapids over the years by becoming business owners, employees at local businesses and leaders in the city.

“It’s not been too remarkable for most of us,” said Iowa Representative Liz Bennett, who represents the 65th district in Cedar Rapids, “because, like I said, it’s our friends, our neighbors, people we do business with.”

This presence of diversity is also due to the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County.  The council was co-founded by Tawil in the 1990s with the goal of representing a variety of faiths and creating a dialogue between people.  It helps facilitate programs geared to engage the people of Cedar Rapids with different faiths.  Selim, the current vice president of the council, sees Cedar Rapids as a model for other communities to learn from. The group strives to encourage the people of Cedar Rapids to understand, appreciate and work to protect diversity in the community.

Bookshelves in the Mother Mosque are filled with Qurans and other Islamic texts.

  Beyond the instrumental role of the interfaith council and the long history of Islam in Cedar Rapids, Selim said there is a human element at work in the community. He said that the empathy people exhibit in the community and the value placed on others is a huge factor in Cedar Rapids’ success.  This empathy proved itself during the 2008 floods when the Cedar Rapids community rallied to help after the basement of the Mother Mosque was damaged.

Tawil said that Iowan values of hard work, sincerity, and having a “good heart” make the Midwest and Islam very compatible with each other.  “That’s basically the fabric of the Muslim community,” Tawil said. “They want to grow in a place where honesty, responsibility, accountability is there and that’s the success of Cedar Rapids.”

Although Cedar Rapids has been overwhelmingly supportive, there have been some sensitivities surrounding recent rhetoric. Bennett acknowledged that people who are frustrated on a number of national issues “have been directed to blame people of the Muslim faith for that,” and this has led to a few incidents in Cedar Rapids, with one of her constituents reporting that her grandmother had been spit on for wearing a hijab.

Selim also stressed the importance of being aware that some people in the community do have genuine fears of Islam, and that sentiment “needs to be acknowledged and needs to be addressed and needs to be dealt with.”

The Mother Mosque’s mihrab, a niche in the wall that points toward the Kaaba in Mecca, is where Muslims face during prayers.

Both imams agreed that the cure for this national tension toward Islam is for people to engage with the Muslim community and have discussions. The two encouraged everyone to visit a local mosque, and encouraged Muslim communities to reach out to their neighbors. Tawil invited everyone to visit the Mother Mosque of America — including President Donald Trump.

“Come on, Mr. President,” Tawil said. “We have got some baklava and some tea for you.”