The members of the Islamic Circle of Mercer County know what people say about Islam. They know that misconceptions about their faith are common, and they know what kind of stereotypes follow their Muslim brothers and sisters.
They also know that not everybody knows what Islam is all about. And that is what they’re looking to change.
“People are reaching out to us also to introduce who we are and what they think about Islam,” said Ifaaz Salahudeen, a member of the Islamic Circle of Mercer County. “They think it’s a foreign entity.”
Both the Islamic Circle of Mercer County, located in Lawrence, and the Islamic Center of Ewing said they received messages of support following two major motions against Islam in late January: the travel ban executive order signed by President Donald Trump, and the mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec City, Canada.
The immigration ban was signed on Jan. 27 and targeted refugees and travelers from seven countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. Though the Trump administration claimed the order did not specifically target Muslims and danced around the “ban” teminology—the executive order was officially titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”—many, including former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, agreed that the order was discriminatory and unconstitutional, and a temporary restraining order prohibiting enforcement of the executive order was issued in January.
The day after the order was issued, a neighbor sent the ICMC flowers in a gesture of support. The Islamic Center of Ewing also received letters and phone calls from well-wishers.
At press time, though, Trump was set to introduce a new travel ban that will not prohibit Syrian refugees from entering the country, but will still bar entry into the United States by migrants from those seven countries.
“When the Muslim ban was announced, we had people left and right calling us and supporting us, which makes us feel like this is a truth,” said Azim Azfar, an ICMC member. “What we are, who we are, anybody can come in. You can come see us any time if you want to talk about it or hear about it. We try to reach out.”
Just two days later, a masked gunman entered the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City’s Grade Mosquée de Québec in Sainte-Foy and opened fire, killing six and injuring 19 in an attack just after evening prayers at 7:55 p.m. The suspect, Alexandre Bissonnette, frequently expressed white nationalist and anti-Muslim sentiments online. Following the shooting, Lawrence Township council members and Mayor David Maffei stopped by the ICMC and offered a message of support.
‘Most are surprised [when they learn about Islam] because what is portrayed is not equal to what we represent.’
The ICMC recently strengthened the mosque’s security protections. In an increasingly volatile political climate, outreach and education become more important.
“We feel that our religion is not portrayed properly,” said Imam Qareeb Bashir of the Islamic Center of Ewing and president of the Islamic Council of Greater Trenton. “Many purposely misrepresent Islam. We do appreciate the help and assistance, the people coming out and supporting Muslims, equality and fairness. But we must go out and educate about the true tenets of our faith.”
ICMC board member Selim Sheikh said the center holds periodic programs—like Interfaith gatherings with local synagogues and churches—to talk about the mosque, their faith and more.
“We have outreach to our non-Muslim brothers and sisters,” Sheikh, a physician who practices in Hamilton, said. “This committee basically tries to invite all to come here on a regular basis and share with them what a Muslim means and what Islam means. What is in the media, or what is in somebody’s language, is not always true. That’s what we had done before in a very small way.”
One particularly meaningful session came right after the presidential election. The Interfaith gathering wasn’t initially planned to be a post-election discussion, but it turned into a thoughtful, proactive conversation about how the different communities could work together in the coming months.
“Five or six of them spoke and had some kind of question or comment,” Azfar, who was born in Pakistan, works in finance, said. “Everything was so enthusiastic and so heartwarming. Obviously, they were definitely frustrated with what’s going on and what kind of comments were being made against this particular group. They are friendly. What they’re offering us, and what we’re offering them.
“We were so happy to see that kind of message. A lot of people who are offering their own support, they have their own groups. They wanted us to join them. It’s a good cause. I know that now from our community, some ladies did the Women’s March. I’ve been here since 2006. You can hear people reaching out to other groups negatively, but we always have a very positive reaction.”
That togetherness is present within the Mercer County Muslim community, too. As part of the Islamic Council of Greater Trenton, Bashir helps various Islamic organizations in the area and outside of the county get together to pray, celebrate holidays and more.
Last Eid, hundreds gathered to pray on the floor of the Sun National Bank Center, he said.
“It’s meant to forge unity, share ideas and collaborate on various projects and opportunities to get to know one another,” Bashir said.
Knowing your neighbor, he added, is one of the core tenets of Islam that he wants to help spread.
“There have been some polls taken, and many Americans say they don’t know anybody who is Muslim,” Bashir said. “There is a line I love from the Quran, which says God created us as male and female from different nations, tribes, colors and religions. It’s about getting to know one another.”
Bashir was raised in a Christian household but converted to Islam in the early ’70s.
“I went to church as a child, but I had a lot of questions, some that were not being answered,” he said. “I was introduced to Islam, and as I began to listen more and examine the tenets of the religion, I converted.”
What Bashir’s faith means to him, he said, is simple but complex. It’s not just believing, but practicing his faith every day.
“There is an Arabic word, din, that means that debt that should be paid, the debt that we owe to our creator,” he said. “We worship, but it’s a way of life, also. It’s not just one day a week, but including it in every aspect of my life.”
Bashir has been the Imam at the Islamic Center of Ewing since it was founded in 2005. Looking at the area at the time, he said, he noticed an official Islamic presence in nearby Trenton, Lawrence, East Windsor—but not in Ewing. They noticed a vacant building on Parkway Avenue and started from scratch, completely renovating the facility.
Now, the center hosts the five daily prayer times, classes for adults, interfaith gatherings, programs geared toward those dealing with addiction and various charitable events and fundraisers. Bashir said African American Muslims initially comprised the core group, but now says that the Islamic Center of Ewing has grown into one of the most diverse masjids in the area.
“We try to show our neighbors, friends and relatives an understanding of Islam that is not always shown on television,” he said.
The ICMC has a similar origin story. Sheikh, who was born in Bangladesh, and some of his peers were looking for a place to get together and pray. They found an empty building, formerly an Elks lodge, on Lawrence Station Road and purchased it about 17 years ago. The building was small—just one room with two bathrooms—but they made do.
They worked out of that building for 14 years but spent eight of those raising money to build a new facility. They broke ground three years ago, and the new three-story building was completed about a month ago. The second floor is reserved for prayer, but the first and third floors are multi-purpose.
They host everything from Girl Scout meetings and Quran study to youth groups and table tennis matches. An after school program started up last month, and Nishat Azfar, Asim’s wife, said the ICMC ladies’ board holds monthly events for women. They serve dinner and listen to lectures on health, exercise, cooking and more. Salahudeen said the ICMC’s social activity committee often invites speakers to the mosque, like the ex-NASA scientist who recently visited from Houston to discuss the Quran and science.
All of the activities lend themselves to productive discussion with members of the mosque and the non-Muslim community, as well, said Ferial Salahudeen, Ifaaz’s wife.
“We had lots of close, intimate conversations in small groups,” she said of a recent Interfaith event. “I think they felt that they could reach out on a more personal level. Lots of people are interested in what Islam is about. They just have questions they want to ask.”
And they welcome those questions about Islam, Sheikh said.
“Most are surprised [when they learn about Islam] because what is portrayed is not equal to what we represent,” Bashir said. “Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world. Troops encounter Islam overseas and due to curiosity, exposure, they see that it’s not as strange or foreign as they thought. Education doesn’t happen just through books or teaching. It’s showing that we are exemplary characters, neighbors, friends, coworkers. We are just normal people.”