DEARBORN, Mich. — Half an hour outside the largest mosque in North America, I thought about turning around. There was a problem with my hair.
I was on my way to the 11th annual Interfaith Prayer Breakfast at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, when another Hillsdale College student called me. She had planned to meet me at the conference, but airstrikes in Syria the night before made another student with whom she was driving nervous. She was turning back, but first she wanted to make sure I had a scarf to cover my pixie cut. Under sharia law, my hair could cause a scandal.
But I wasn’t alone in my discomfort. This Saturday was my first visit to a mosque, and as I watched the students at the Muslim American Youth Academy kneel for their morning prayer, I realized they were typical American kids: forty pairs of fidgety rainbow stocking-feet on a prayer room carpet. Syria or no, these kids would grow up in a complex situation. American Islam is a learning curve — but one I navigated with a scarf and a breakfast at the ICA.
The students’ prayer was a “performance” directed by Eide Alawan, the coordinator of the ICA’s prayer breakfast for military officers and other citizens interested in American Islam in a post-9/11 world racked by inter-religious strife.
Sixty-seven International Fellows from 54 countries of the National Defense Academy sat on the floor in their sock feet, listening to Alawan’s views on Islam’s future in American society despite upsets like the strikes in Syria. They had been flown out from Washington, D.C. with a program that brings military officers from around the world to study American life.
“I believe in the next 500 years, folks, Islam will be a large community in the United States, not taking over any other faith tradition,” said Alawan, the ICA’s interfaith outreach officer. “But the best example will be in the United States.”
I had shuffled in late and awkwardly, held up by rain and lingering concerns about whether the home of the largest Arab population in the country might be unstable. A Hillsdale student sent me a Facebook post from a Dearborn resident, who voiced his anger at breakfasting with the “savages” of the “corrupted board” of the ICA. I sat in traffic behind a hydroplane accident, awash in dangers real and imagined. I wound and rewound my scarf. Just how angry would Dearborn be?
Not at all. When I arrived, I tiptoed into an upscale mid-1960s conference center, chandeliers glowing despite the mid-morning gloom, pointed dark wood doors opening into a banquet hall set with vases of premature spring flowers, crystal glasses, gold napkins — a hush over the room, awaiting the meal that would follow the opening session.
The sanctuary is circular, situated in the center of the building and ringed by shoes. I added ours to the pile and padded in, head down and unsure where to look, how to act, whether to sit or hover in my first visit to a mosque.
“Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all brothers and sisters,” Alawan said. But ICA’s interest is in education, not missions, he said.
I watched the children pray, their innocence, their half-learned piety, their all-too-human energy on full display. Two girls played with their scarves during the refrains of “Allah lo akbar.” I brushed the back of my neck; was my scarf slipping too? The ICA is fairly moderate, so that’s not a problem outside their worship space — but then again, the restaurants in the area do observe sharia standards for modesty. I should be careful, if only to avoid offense.
Alawan translated what he called “our Lord’s Prayer”: “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful, the master of the day, most gracious, most merciful, guide us on the path of faith and not the path of those who have gone astray.”
The ICA’s message was one of religious pluralism. Alawan pointed behind him to a swirl of Arabic script: “The Quran tells me right up on the wall — it says that ‘Christians, Jews, and Sabeans’ [an ancient people from the Southern Arabian Peninsula] all have the opportunity to go to heaven if they practice their faith. I don’t know of any other religion in the world that says that, because everyone takes the attitude that ‘I’m the way; you’re not the way.’”
“Where’s Brenda? Is Brenda in here?” he asked. He waved a small woman, still weaving a leopard-print scarf around her head, to the center of the room. Before breakfast, he said, she had to tell their story.
“We were the first to bring a church, a synagogue, and a mosque together in America — it probably was the world, too,” said Brenda Rosenberg, who represented the synagogue in the planning of the Children of Abraham Project, which aimed to bring together children of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths to form a theatre troupe. She recounted the moment that she and Alawan formed an alliance; she was defending a young girl who claimed she was a Zionist, which made the Muslim leaders uncomfortable.
“There I was sitting across from five imams and Eide Alawan, trying to figure out what to do about it.” She told them that in rejecting the young girl for her political views, “they were asking me to cut out the heart of who I was. But Eide Alawan stood up and said, ‘We want to save your heart. We don’t want to cut out your heart.’ And we negotiated,” Rosenberg said. “That’s the kind of partnership that we have. It’s never easy, but we keep talking.”
I got the impression that this was an “only in Dearborn” sort of situation. And perhaps only in a certain suburban building complex: the largest mosque in America is located in the same cul-de-sac as St. Clement Ohridski Orthodox Church, Warrendale Bible Church, St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church, and a Lutheran church called — riskily, Marianly — Mother of the Savior.
What to think of the largest mosque in America sitting matter-of-factly next to an Orthodox church in the outskirts of Detroit? It could be another of America’s multicultural mixed messages as we attempt to parse what it means to be one and free and many in the disorienting proto-globalism of the early 21st century.
And maybe it’s an “only in America” sort of religious expression; Alawan prophesied that in 500 years, Islam will be the largest religious group in the country, but he doesn’t want it to eclipse other traditions. Instead, he said, the challenge for Muslims is not reaching out to other religions, but restoring integrity in the “intrafaith” divide between the Shia and Sunni sects. To that end, Alawan proposes fusion: He calls himself a “Su-Shi Muslim.”
“If Christians can come together, and Jews can come together, Muslims can too,” Alawan said. “But it’s not going to happen in the Middle East. If I go to a Middle East country and tell them I’m a Su-Shi Muslim, they’ll think I’m crazy.”
On to another community ritual: breakfast, tables laden with Lebanese pitas, garbanzo beans, fruit, cheese, olives. We found two seats in the back of the hall, a Serbian NDA fellow on our right and an Estonian on our left. The latter, Jaak Tarien, will enter cyber-communications work in his home country at the end of the year-long NDA course. We chatted about Trump and mass media. We discussed the ICA; he found Alawan’s presentation “interesting. They’re really trying to get together. It’s the sort of thing you don’t see in other places.”
Representatives of all three religions blessed the meal. We ran out of coffee and eggs. Ron Stockman, a professor from the University of Michigan at Dearborn, presented his work tracking down Muslim graves in Southeast Michigan. There are more than 1000, dating back to the first wave of immigrants to the Dearborn area in the late 19th century, and their inscriptions and decorations present a smorgasbord of religious, political, and familial sentiments: patriotic hymns, snippets from Protestant hymns, and depictions of the Muslim holy family of Muhammad. It’s natural for these boundaries to blur, Stockman said. It’s what neighbors do, friends, no matter the tradition. You pick things up.
Stockman wasn’t going to let me avoid that Arabic verse in the mosque: The afterlife, for American Muslims, seems just as pluralistic as this breakfast.
“It’s easy to follow your religion in America, folks,” Alawan said. “You just do your own thing, and as long as you’re not disturbing anyone, you’re okay.”
And for now, it seems like we are okay. I didn’t even notice my scarf was still wound around my head until I was halfway back to Hillsdale.