Muslim Town Hall Meeting at ICN

Amid political unease, Muslims seek comfort in faith

By Maryam Saleh

Standing in front of an American flag that hangs on the wall of the gymnasium at the Islamic Center of Naperville, sunlight spilling through the large windows behind him, Imam Rizwan Ali spoke of hope.

“As Allah took care of his prophets, he will take care of us, and we need to do everything we can to be positive contributors in our society,” he said, speaking to the crowd at a town hall meeting Sunday.

About 100 men and women – mostly middle-aged, mostly Muslim – came to the post-election community meeting to think, process and learn, they said. Ali urged them to follow the example of the Prophet Mohammad, who was “the most optimistic person,” even as he faced persecution some 1,400 years ago.

The meeting was one of many events organized by Muslims across the nation in the last week. They are concerned about their future under a president, who campaigned on promises to impose a “total and complete” ban on Muslim immigration to America and famously said “Islam hates us.”

There have been more than 300 reported hate incidents since Election Day – many of them against the Muslim community – following an election season with heightened Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, according to ThinkProgress, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

In a report released Monday, the FBI said there was a six percent nationwide increase in hate crimes last year. Anti-Muslim crimes jumped 67 percent from 2014 to 2015  for a total of 257 of out of 5,818 hate crimes reported to federal officials last year.

In the Chicago area, community leaders turned to Islamic teachings to quell constituents’ concerns.

Abdul Malik Mujahid, a prominent community leader and pronounced Democrat, gave an impassioned speech  at the mosque in Naperville. He said he respects the system that elected Donald Trump, “but I will respect him when he earns my respect.”

Mujahid, who emigrated from Pakistan decades ago, is “scared” about America’s future, but motivated, he said, to work toward a better one.

“I chose this country because of its constitution, because this country stands for freedom and liberty, which is what we’re fighting for,” he said to thunderous applause.

The 65-year-old religious leader stressed that the best approach for Muslims is to live by the “prophetic mission” – to help establish “peace, justice, equity, fairness and the rights of everybody in society.”

Despite the speakers’ determination, a lingering sense of anxiety was clear in attendees’ side conversations about the post-election backlash against Muslims and other minority groups.

The panelists spoke to their fears.

Before addressing concerns about an increase in anti-Muslim hate incidents, attorney Sadia Covert turned to her faith to reassure those who were listening intently, searching for answers.

“[God] is all-wise and all-knowing, and there’s a wisdom behind it and a plan we don’t know of,” she said.

She nonetheless recognized the legitimacy of Muslims’ concerns at a time that “haters have been emboldened,” saying she was inundated with reports of Muslim women fearing leaving home in their hijabs and students being bullied at schools in the days following the election.

Covert and others have been working with state lawmakers for more than a year to amend the Illinois hate crime statute, which is “vague” and doesn’t “expound upon what a hate crime is and how it is defined,” she said, making it difficult to prove that a crime was motivated by feelings of hate and bias.

Still, the attorney sees a silver lining in Illinois.

“I want to give you hope that once we amend this hate crime bill, we’ll have more accurate statistics, we will be able to prosecute appropriately, and law enforcement will be more clear as to how to go about this,” she said before concluding her speech with a commonly cited Quranic verse – “With every hardship comes ease.”

During a Friday sermon at the Islamic Foundation, a mosque in Villa Park, Azeemuddin Ahmed also spoke optimistically.

“These events that have happened must only energize us, must only create within us a renewed commitment to our faith, a renewed commitment to our [mosque], a renewed commitment to Allah. And, God willingly, you will see that no matter what, this will end up only in good,” he said to worshipers.

The Muslim preacher made no explicit reference to the election or Donald Trump during his 25-minute sermon, but instead repeatedly reminded mosque-goers that events happen only because God wills them so, and that Islam teaches people to remain patient no matter what is thrown their way.

“You cannot change what happens around you, but you can change what your own perception is and how you react to the conditions,” Ahmed said.

At a separate gathering on Saturday night, about 200 people attended a special dinner at the Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove. Dilnaz Waraich, who leads the mosque’s interfaith and outreach efforts, said the gathering was intended to help people to “move forward and set strategies in place.”

An imam, a representative of a Muslim civil rights group, and a psychologist took turns at the meeting talking about how to look to Islamic history to learn how to cope with trying times, the importance of civic engagement,  and how to best grieve and move forward.

“We don’t want to be in depression, because we have Allah, and we have the Quran,” Waraich said. “The Quran does not need us to be depressed. It needs us to be active and to have our voices heard.”

“We have no choice but to be optimistic and trust Allah,” says Imam Rizwan Ali at post-election community meeting at the Islamic Center of Naperville. Nov. 13, 2016. (Maryam Saleh/MEDILL)