USA: Iowa Muslims say 9/11 backlash is real and hurtful

Following 9/11, long-standing relationships eased unwarranted backlash for Muslims in Iowa, but the same hasn’t held true elsewhere, members of the Islamic community say.

“Prior to 9/11, Islam was never viewed as a threat,” said Bill Aossey, 69, of Cedar Rapids, president of Midamar Corp. “Why, after Sept. 11, because of the acts of a few individuals, has the administration demonized a billion and a half people around the world?”

Aossey points to doctors, teachers and Rockwell engineers among the many Muslims in Cedar Rapids, where the Islamic community dates back to the 19th century. The Mother Mosque of America — believed to be the oldest mosque in North America — was completed in 1934 at 1335 Ninth St. NW.

“The history of Islam in Cedar Rapids is well-established,” Aossey said, adding that national media and the previous presidential administration painted Muslims with an adversarial stereotype.

While Cedar Rapids remains an open and welcoming community, Aossey said, he cited failed efforts to start a Muslim youth camp at nearby Coralville Lake as fallout from the stereotyping.

Leaders gave up on more than a decade of planning to build the camp after misinformation spread, including claims of building a prayer tower that was never part of the plans, Aossey said. National radio talk-show host Michael Gallagher said that the camp could breed terrorists, and that it “might become a potential terrorist cell.”

Aossey said restrictions placed on the project after the national backlash made it difficult to build the camp as a place where children could play and learn.

“In reality, it’s a blow to our children — not just Muslim children — all children,” he said, noting the camp would have been open to any child, similar to the YMCA.

Imam Ahmed Nabhan of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids, 2999 First Ave. SW, said the most important message for people to understand is that “the United States is our country.”

“We should not let any problem or evil in the United States,” he said. “We would like to protect our country from any evil and build the economy.”

Nabhan said that directive comes from the Quran, Islam’s holy book.

“The United States is our country and the future of our kids,” he said. “Let us be busy with our responsibilities to our children and community and the United States of America.”

Faith groups in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids have events planned to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Shams Ghoneim, 65, of Iowa City, coordinator of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Iowa Chapter, will be one of the speakers at the Iowa City event.

“It’s a call for peace, healing and reconciliation,” she said. “It’s

not about speeches. It’s about the community coming together. This is not the time to hold grudges.”

Ghoneim, who retired from the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, cited this year’s congressional investigation of “Muslim-American radicalization” by U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., as a continuation of the national backlash against Muslims.

She said such an investigation would not be acceptable against Jews, African-Americans or other populations.

Ghoneim echoed Aossey in saying Iowa has been more open than the nation as a whole.

“There’s been so much outreach, not just to understand the religion, but the people,” she said. “You cannot hold any community hostage because of the horrific acts of the few.”

Tim Hyatt, 50, of Cedar Rapids, converted to Islam after his volunteer work in the Peace Corps in Morocco. The New York native visited New York City with his family before the attack on the World Trade Center.

Hyatt, a member of the Islamic Center, is helping to organize the 9/11 anniversary reflection in Cedar Rapids.

“Cedar Rapids has been a shining example of people coming together and welcoming people with open arms,” he said.

Midamar’s Aossey cited ongoing local efforts with an agricultural project in Afghanistan, started by Coe graduate Mohammad Kharoti, as an example of important relationships with Islamic regions of the world. Cedar Rapids-based Midamar, an exporter of Halal foods and food service equipment, does business around the globe.

Bill Aossey (center) of Cedar Rapids poses with two Aghani shoe cleaners in February in Banyan, Afghanistan, north of Kabul. Aossey was in Afghanistan on behalf of an agricultural project started by a Coe College graduate. “We were being invited to a lunch with a number of rural and agricultural small-business members in a restaurant just behind and upstairs from where the picture was taken,” Aossey said. “The tradition is to take one’s shoes off in the restaurant. So I decided to leave my shoes to get them cleaned and polished while having lunch.” (Bill Aossey photo)