Will America's Oldest Muslim Community Survive President Trump?

In 1885, a group of Muslim immigrants settled in Iowa to worship free from persecution – now, once again, they have to prove they're American

Imam Hassan Selim delivers the khutbah during Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Friday, January 20, 2017. Credit: KC McGinnis for Rolling Stone

An hour before Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, a week out from signing his immigration ban, the oldest Muslim congregation in the United States had yet to panic. On that Friday afternoon in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the faithful removed their shoes in the foyer of the Islamic Center, making small talk about the college basketball teams, or the opaque mist congesting the eastern edge of the state. Yet there was nothing said about the man who had won the executive branch on a platform that included blocking Muslims from entering the U.S., who would soon largely make good on that promise – or at least try.

Hassan Selim, the mosque's leader, is young for an imam. At only 29, he preaches with unseasoned vigor – full of raw, unpolished passion and the intensity of faith. He doesn't mention politics, but his plea for the spiritual rewards of striving for greatness – plus his tendency to slide sideways into a sentence – shares a few notes in common with the new commander in chief's style.

"If you are performing a task, you must perform it to the best of your abilities," he says, switching to English to talk to the congregation after a prayer service in Arabic. "Allah has made it clear that if you do this, you are successful. You move ahead in the crowd. When you speak to the people, speak not as just to regular people but with the best words you can afford. Be excellent even in your speech."

There are about 200 worshippers here today, some born and raised here in Iowa while others, like Selim – who came here from Egypt with his American wife in 2012 – are just settling into the country. Their struggle to find the balance between being a Muslim and an American has taken on a fresh urgency under the Trump administration. "It feels time sensitive now in a way it didn't before," Selim says.

As he often does, Selim ends the day asking for anyone with a spare room to consider renting it out to a new immigrant. There are more people every month.

By all appearances this was just another Friday for these second, third and fourth generation worshippers, no different than the afternoons when their forerunners kneeled, with the possible exception that the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids has only been here since 1971. The original place of worship, the Mother Mosque, was built more than 80 years ago, making it the oldest mosque in all of North America. Yet it usually stands empty two-and-a-half miles southwest of here in an older part of the city, and is now mostly used for community meetings and as an educational center to teach non-Muslims about Islam. Perhaps the only building as influential to Cedar Rapid's development is the Quaker Oats Mill that opened in 1901, which remains one of the city's top employers and is responsible for the smell of roasted cereal that hangs over the town every morning.

The city consistently appears on national rankings for best places to raise children or for most affordable metro areas, the violent crime rate is 25 percent lower than the national average and three percent lower than that of the state. And despite the cliché of rural America as a provincial haven for a white Christians, a 2017 review by the American Bible Society found the city's religious makeup much closer to Manhattan or Los Angeles than to most parts of the Hawkeye State.

That's not to say that Cedar Rapids is immune to rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of the presidential election. Less than a week after Trump claimed Iowa's six electoral votes, local man Amar Samel returned home from a visitation for his recently deceased father to find this note taped to his door: "You can all go home now. We don't want niggers and terrorists here. #Trump." And just this week, the GOP-led Iowa House Judiciary Subcommittee approved bill HF223, a law to prevent judicial courts from using foreign law to decide state cases – essentially a legislative protection against Sharia Law. 

Such incidents are familiar to Miriam Amer, executive director of the Iowa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who spends a significant amount of time easing both corn-fed and Middle-Eastern ignorance. She trains both police departments and recent immigrants to communicate in spite of cultural differences, offers legal aid and civil rights counseling to Muslims in need, and promotes interfaith meetings around the state. There are 25 mosques in Iowa, most of them storefront operations, serving the roughly 80,000 Muslims from Des Moines to Davenport. But she spends most of her time in Polk County, where Des Moines is seated, and Cedar Rapids' Linn County, which split the bulk of the concentration. An estimate from the Association of Religious Data Archives estimates a 38 percent increase in Iowa Muslims from 2000 to 2010, with more immigrants every day who could use some guidance assimilating. In all of this there's the inherent question: After surviving two World Wars, multiple global recessions and almost two dozen different presidents, why does one of the country's oldest communities need to keep proving that it's American?

Amer is sitting in a basement conference room of the Cedar Falls Police Department, one week shy of Trump's inauguration, wearing a red hijab. She has a presentation she gives police departments on how to understand the customs and habits of fresh Muslim immigrants, and though this is her first time instructing this particular department she works the room with the comfort of an old professional.

She has to sit because of a broken back, and grips a cane in one hand while working a PowerPoint presentation with the other as she gives the officers an explanation of Muslim culture. She's a good teacher, charismatic enough to make her exasperation funny, and the cluster of young patrol officers in uniform taking notes laugh a lot but don't ask many follow-up questions, instead sipping from half-empty Styrofoam cups of coffee. It's 8 a.m. and most have yet to start their day's patrol.

Amer's advice to officers: Muslim immigrants often come from countries where the police are there to serve the dictators and not the people, so don't mistake fear for disrespect if they don't look you in the eye. Or, she says, the paranoia could come from rumors about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, or America's reputation for surveilling its citizens. They have to pray five times a day, but most, like her, think the almighty will give them a pass if they don't do it on planes to keep people from panicking. She sympathizes with female officers who say they don't get much respect from Muslim men, depending on their country of origin.

"Some of the wealthy young guys from Saudi Arabia have a real entitled attitude," says Lt. Mark Howard, Cedar Falls training coordinator, who's been smiling through his grey mustache and nodding in agreement through most of Amer's talk.

Amer gives an exaggerated roll of the eyes and lets out a knowing sigh. "Tell me about it," she says. "Those are the guys who'll call me to ask about getting out of parking tickets. Not my job."

She also wants them to know how to protect Muslims, including what is and isn't considered an insult: "If you burn a Quran you're just doing us a favor. Old Qurans are supposed to be burned, that's how we dispose of them," she says. Amer spent the first half of her life on the East Coast, including nearly a decade in New York, and she has a way of biting down a Queens accent when she's hitting a point. "I keep mine high enough that my grandkids can't make a mess of it, on the shelf right next to my Bible."

Amer understands as much danger comes from self-radicalization as from bigotry. It's uncommon but not surprising for parents to call her concerned about what their teenagers have been consuming online, though she's yet to deal with anyone who's gone so far as to plot an actual attack. Once, Amer called in some favors with friends in the intelligence community when a terrified family reported that their son had run away and left extremist message boards in his search history. They found the kid alone and safe on a beach in Florida, more interested in living somewhere warm than in politics.

The talk is cozy, and stays that way when Amer starts to recount some of the messages she's received from people convinced she's part of a plot against America. She gets her share of threats, including a recent series of letters from Alaska putting her on notice that good Christian Americans were on the way to deal with her.

"Please. Let them come," she says, shaking her cane. "I'll hit them with my stick."

The cops laugh. They'd like to see that.

The first immigrant Muslims came to Cedar Rapids in 1885, the same year that a young German businessman named Friedrich Trump emigrated to Queens, and a year before the Iowa state's capitol building erected a gold dome, a recognizable local symbol to this day. They were there for the most American of reasons, fleeing persecution from the crumbling Ottoman Empire, in what is now Libya and Syria. They traveled the East Coast working in grocery stores before setting off across the prairie as migrant peddlers selling needles, threads and laces when they were poor, linens and prints when they'd had some success. Native Americans were some of their most reliable customers. When they encountered prejudice, they accepted it as the price of immigration. Between the Irish the Asians and every other group, everyone ate a little bigotry.

"They opened businesses, served in wartime, started families," says Hassan Igram, CEO of Cedar Graphics printing business and grandson of one of the businessmen who helped finance the mosque. "They didn't do much in the way of public relations though. I don't think we ever thought that we needed to."

It was 1885 when a handful of families settled in Cedar Rapids. A few prospered as grocers, others tried their hand at farming. They made plans to build a mosque and community center, and scraped the money together at the height of the Great Depression. In 1934, the Moslem Temple opened to the public, a basement and community room with 12-foot ceilings and a prayer room upstairs. It stands today essentially the same. Except for the emerald dome and spire over the front door, it shares more in common with the utilitarian plains architecture than with holy temples in the Middle East – all straight lines and clapboards of suburban-Midwest ranch houses.

"Then, things were a melting pot. You come here and you melt," says Taha Tawil, the Imam of the Mother Mosque. "Now everyone is hard like bone."

He is in the basement of the mosque pointing to a picture of the original congregation in 1934, then moves on to a framed clip from a 1938 edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette recounting how two Iowa boys here were the first in the country to learn to read Arabic using a Quran. Another story explains how military dog tags used to have 'P's' for Protestant, 'C's' for Catholics, and 'J's' for Jews but no 'M's' until the city's Abdullah Igram survived his service in World War II and wrote President Eisenhower requesting one. The room is modernized with stainless steel kitchen appliances and a gleaming white tile floor, the result of reconstruction after a record-setting flood that washed away buildings across the region in 2008.

Tawil splits his time between the mosque and teaching world-religion classes for inmates at prisons around the state, a job that keeps him on the road more often than in the prayer room. Originally from Jerusalem, he has been a U.S. citizen for more than 20 years. Even after 9/11, he never worried about his place here. He says he came to the mosque the day after the terrorist attacks and found the steps covered with flowers and support cards.

Despite Iowa's unique Muslim history, it was here that Trump aired his first campaign ad doubling down on promise to ban Muslim immigration, a 31-second spot whose sole, now-familiar message, was a call to ban Muslims from the country, in language so plain that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer will eventually scramble to disavow it in front of the press corps.

As early as two days before a copy of the proposed travel restrictions leak, Tawil was still hoping that this was little more than campaign rhetoric, even if it was unusually ugly. During the campaign, he'd invited Trump to speak to the community, but never got a response. "He says the media lies to us. Well fine, I will believe him that they are lies," he says. "Come tell us what he means then. I am still waiting for an answer."

The answer comes two days later with the executive order seeking a temporary ban on immigrants – even those with visas – from seven largely Muslim countries, an indefinite suspension on the entry of Syrian refugees and a 120-day ban on the rest of the world's refugees. Soon after, Miriam Amer was notified that three Muslims from Iowa State University with either green cards or visas, including a post-doctoral student, an underclassman and a research fellow have been detained abroad.

"Not surprised," Salim says of the ban, shortly after the news is announced. "He is following through on his promise. I'm just praying it's not the beginning of an era of violating minority's rights in the name of security."

Igram, the grandson of the community forefather, also hoped Trump's ban was an empty promise. "I'm very disappointed that he is signing executive orders like this so quickly without putting the necessary thought into what real impact it will have for our country, and for the refugees and others who look up to us as a bastion of hope and opportunity," he says. "This protectionist policy is bad for us and for our allies around the world. It is not what the majority of Americans want. I fear for the future."

When the flood came to Cedar Rapids in June 2008 the waters crested at 31 feet, covering a full 14 percent of the city before surging into the Mother Mosque. The oldest Qurans fattened and burst as the basement flooded to the ceiling, rugs woven in the Ottoman Empire unraveled, historical diaries and poems were ruined, the earliest artifacts of Islam in North America swept away.

It was just a four months before Senator John McCain was booed at an Ohio campaign rally for telling the crowd that Barack Obama was not "an Arab." But in Cedar Rapids, the mosque's submerged doorstep welcomed unsolicited rescue parties of Jews, Christians, Buddhists, atheists and, of course, Muslims, wading waist-deep and asking how they could help. Even the muddy boot prints they tracked across the normally shoe-free alabaster carpet of the prayer room were a welcome sight. They saved the structure.

Today, the only sign of this is another clip from The Cedar Rapids Gazette on the restored basement's wall, just another chapter in the story that starts just a few feet away from the picture of the community founders. Tawil calls it a new beginning. Today they own empty lots on each side of the mosque where waterlogged houses that could not be salvaged were torn down. Those lots are now part of the mosque's first expansion plan in its 80 year history, and with blueprints to add new wings to the building for historical displays closer to a museum's walls than those of a community center basement.

"There isn't a doubt in my mind that people would come to help again, if that flood happened today," Hassan Igram says. "The world hasn't changed that much. I have no doubt, of course they would."