In conservative Ohio, a thriving Islamic Centre builds community and understanding

Compound has grown to serve tens of thousands of Muslim-American families and educate thousands of non-Muslim students along the way

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Close to an interstate motorway in suburban, deeply conservative Butler County, Ohio, a golden minaret mounts the grounds of a vibrant and thriving Islamic Centre.

The contrast of the "Ottoman, Syrian and Moorish" inspired architecture of the Islamic Centre of Greater Cincinnati (ICGC) against its backdrop of American chain restaurants, suburban cul-de-sac housing and flat Ohio landscape that make up the town of West Chester was not lost on the mosque's original founders.

"The goal of the original people who thought about building this mosque here in West Chester, Ohio, was something that looked different," Shabana Ahmed, the ICGC's tours and talks chairman and board member, told The National.

"When people are driving down the [I-75 motorway] and see this architecturally beautiful building, to ask, 'What is that, what's that building for?' They wanted something very unique here in the Midwest."

Built in 1995, the centre began as a mosque for the Cincinnati suburb's small but growing Muslim community.

The first families were made up of South Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants who came to America in the 1960s and 70s, then moved out from cities to the suburbs in the 1980s and 90s, according to vice chairwoman of the centre's board Samina Sohail.

More than 25 years later, the centre has grown into a seven-hectare campus that includes the main prayer room, a primary school and athletic facility, that serves "tens of thousands" of families.

"I remember when some of our first mosques were just basically office spaces we rented in warehouses, so we could just get together and pray and have community dinners and gatherings and things like that," Ms Sohail said.

"Not a lot of [Midwestern] mosques, especially in the 90s, were this beautiful, this elaborate. I think pretty much anybody in this community can remember the first time they stepped into this space, that feeling of just the awe and the beauty, and 'wow ... I can't believe this is my mosque'."

‘I understand the challenges, I understand the misconceptions, I understand the stereotypes. And just building bridges of understanding, goes a really, really long way in improving the fabric of our society,’ said Samina Sohail, who takes time to teach students at local Catholic schools about the Muslim faith. Joshua Longmore / The National

The architects were particularly inspired by the Umayyad Dynasty and Moorish Spain, but designed a space with nearly all Ohio-crafted pieces. That includes towering, stained glass windows from working-class Middletown, fountains and intricate tiles from designers and builders throughout the Midwestern state.

The massive, draping chandelier hovering over the main prayer space is one of the few non-Ohio items, having come from an artist in Syria.

"Every time I look at that, I think about the people of Syria. And that we have this beautiful piece here, but then the struggles that are happening in that country," Ms Ahmed solemnly added.

While the Muslim-American community is growing in the Cincinnati suburb, they are still very much a minority. The population there is largely white at more than 80 per cent, and though government census data does not have information on religious affiliation, some analysis has shown Muslims represent a mere 0.5 per cent of the population.

Butler County is also a deeply conservative area. In 2020, residents overwhelmingly voted in favour of then-president Donald Trump over Joe Biden, by a staggering 24-point difference.

In the days after the 2016 presidential election of Mr Trump, who ran a campaign laced with xenophobia and who quickly implemented an executive order known as "The Muslim Ban" that prohibited travel to the US from seven Muslim-majority countries, the centre hosted a "Know Your Neighbour" event with the wider non-Muslim community.

Almost 700 non-Muslims attended that event "in support", Ms Ahmed said.

ICGC's Shabana Ahmed describes her pride at watching the centre's growth since its 1995 opening. Joshua Longmore / The National

Part of that work in the wider community includes taking time to give special lessons in Cincinnati's Catholic schools, which are particularly important institutions in the heavily Catholic city.

Katie Collins teaches a world religions course at St Xavier High School, an all-boys establishment closer to city centre about 30 minutes from the Islamic Centre.

Quote
If you provide that eager student with information that is correct ... you can push back against the cultural voices that are trying to create a sense of fear
Katie Collins, Catholic high school religion teacher who integrates the Islamic Centre into her lesson plan

Ms Sohail had been going into Ms Collins's high school classes once to twice a year for a more basic "Islam 101, ask me anything" style lecture. But one year, Ms Sohail informed Ms Collins that she would be lecturing the Catholic students while fasting for Ramadan.

From that moment, Ms Collins each year gave her students a new assignment to prepare for Ms Sohail's special lectures: fast all day, and then write an essay about what they took away from the experience.

"One of the biggest takeaways is the fact that Muslims have so much more in common with us than what we have in difference," Ms Collins said of her students' experience in the course, both in fasting for Ramadan and taking the time to pray five times a day.

"It also gives the students an opportunity to reflect ... 'should I be making time in my life to pray, what does my faith mean to me?'"

For "most" of her students, the exercise and the coursework was their first exposure to Islam, Ms Collins said. But there are students at the school who are Muslim, including Ms Sohail's own son.

The show of solidarity from Catholic teenagers added to the value of her own lesson plan, added Ms Sohail.

"All these boys with the day that I would visit from that class got up early before sunrise, had their breakfast meal, fast the whole day," she said.

"Reading [their essays] are just so remarkable ... not just how they had a little more respect for Muslims when they fast, but just how they had so much more respect for their own religion, and the tenants of their religion and the expectations of their religion."

Ms Collins believes teaching her students at St Xavier, known locally as St X, about the traditions of Islam is a part of living out their own religious values.

"Our [Catholic] faith calls us to build a sense of solidarity with people who practice different faiths, one that is rooted in a deeper understanding of our common calling," Ms Collins told The National.

'I think it's a gift that we have places like the Islamic Centre of Greater Cincinnati that provides so many opportunities for students to regularly engage with members of their community,' says Catholic school teacher Katie Collins. Joshua Longmore / The National

For Ms Collins, those lessons accomplish far more than a good grade or a high school course credit.

"When you have the privilege that I have to work with young people, you encounter over and over, notice over and over again, an eagerness to learn about people who are different than them," she said.

"If you provide that eager student with information that is correct ... you can push back against the cultural voices that are trying to create a sense of fear."

For Ms Sohail, the Islamic Centre's own patrons are a reminder of the diversity within the Muslim-American community itself. Community members come from a range of backgrounds, including "Syria, Egypt, many countries in Africa, white-American converts and a huge Uzbek population", she said.

"I think one of the most remarkable things about our community is our diversity, we are a Muslim-American community. So we don't have just one ethnic group here," said Ms Sohail.

Despite recent surges of Islamophobic hate crimes and a legacy of post-9/11 surveillance on Muslim- Americans, Ms Sohail wants Muslims outside the US to know that she feels empowered to practise her faith in America.

"This country is one of the best places to be able to practice our religion ... I can come to the mosque five times a day, nobody can stop me," she said. "I can speak my mind. I can talk to other people. It's just a very beautiful country to live in to practise your faith."

Updated: November 22, 2022, 2:45 AM
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