Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq visited 30 mosques in 30 states during Ramadan. What they found was controversy, humor and an embracing nation.
By Carrie McCloud
Aman Ali met his fair share of discrimination as a Muslim American growing up in the mostly white town of Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Ali was a 16-year-old high school junior during the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and one of two Muslims at a school of about 2,000 students.
“At first we were like, ‘Man, I hope it’s a white guy,’” Ali said.
His class sat glued to the television. When Ali disagreed with a student who said the United States should “nuke Afghanistan,” the student accused Ali of standing up for the terrorists responsible for 9/11. Even worse, he said it was probably Ali’s father flying the plane. “I got so mad, I grabbed his shirt and I’m getting ready to punch him,” Ali said. That’s when he saw a smirk on the student’s face.
“I froze,” Ali said. “I could be the only exposure this guy had to Muslims and that’s what he was going to think for the rest of his life.”
Ali knows 9/11 changed the way Americans perceive Muslims. “I do get a little frustrated though that the only narrative people hear about Muslims since 9/11 is in a victim context, like we’re being profiled, having trouble in airport security or victims of hate crimes,” Ali said. “To say that these issues define us, is so frustrating. We’re more than that.”
30 mosques in 30 days
That’s part of the reason Ali, a journalist and comedian, took to the road last summer to shed light on everyday Muslim Americans. “We weren’t trying to preach anything; we just wanted to tell stories,” he said.
Ali and filmmaker Bassam Tariq, 24, made the bi-coastal road trip during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan beginning in September 2010. The two twenty-somethings who live in New York spent each night at a different mosque in a different state and documented it all on their “30 Mosques, 30 States” blog. Ali hoped the blog would encourage others to “take a chance to meet someone who you’ve never come across before.”
When their sponsor fell through two weeks before the trip, Ali and Tariq turned to friends and supporters on Twitter and Facebook for donations.
“We didn’t put together some crazy elaborate plan,” Ali said. “30 states, 30 days. That’s all it took.”
They set out on the open road with their cameras, laptops and smart phones in tow. Because Muslims fast during Ramadan from sunrise to sunset, they skipped the munchies for the car.
“Fasting was actually the easiest part,” Ali said. “No snacking, no nothing, just bumping to music.”
The hard part would be telling compelling stories. “I was afraid that a story about Muslims in Pennsylvania would be similar to stories of Muslims in Boston,” Ali said.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case. Ali and Tariq visited a Confederate souvenir shop in Chula, Ga., got kicked out of a mosque in Mobile, Ala., and found the oldest mosque in the United States in, of all places, Ross, N.D. They met Islamic doctors and Bosnian refugees. Their road trip ended in Dearborn, Mich., where 30 percent of the population is Arab-American.
Ali and Tariq have lived most of their lives since 9/11 with the undercurrent of Islamophobia. But Ali hopes that soon a new Muslim narrative will emerge. The pair has been traveling the country for the second time this year to speak about their 30 Mosques project at colleges and universities, from Harvard to New York University.
“While we know of the anti-Muslim backlash in this country, it was refreshing to hear the message of inclusiveness that Ali and Tariq found in their 30 day trip,” said Cliff Staten, a professor at Indiana University Southeast, where they spoke on March 2. “Our students really liked the event because Ali and Tariq are young.”
A mosque in the Bible Belt
Blog posts from the 30 Mosque trip range from stories about family to the way women are treated in more conservative establishments.
“My community is not exempt from any criticism,” Ali said. “I didn’t go on a mission to bash everybody, but I wanted to give an honest portrayal and not sweep anything under the rug.”
Some stories were more heartwarming than controversial. In Memphis, Tenn., they discovered an unusual act of kindness. A multipurpose mosque that was still under construction sat across the street from a United Methodist church.
A sign appeared near the mosque that read, “Heartsong Church welcomes the Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.”
“I would say they were shocked by it,” said Pastor Steve Stone about his welcoming of the Muslim community. “The best they had hoped for was to be ignored.”
Last September, construction lagged and the center asked Heartsong Church for a place to hold its Ramadan services. Stone, who became friends with the mosque’s chairman, Bashar Shala, said he told him, “I’m going to pray that your building is done … But I’m also going to pray that it’s not because I want you in our building at least one night.” Stone got more than his wish. For the month of Ramadan, Muslim members prayed in the same place Heartsong Church members worshipped on Sundays.
Stone said it cost him about 20 members of his more than 700 member congregation, but that that didn’t matter to him. “Now, the people who I didn’t know across the street – one is my cardiologist, some are my dear friends and many of them call me brother,” Stone said.
Looking for humor
Ali’s family came from India 30 or 40 years ago. He studied journalism at Kent State University and has worked for Newsweek, Gannett, Journal News, USA TODAY and most recently, Reuters. He began doing stand-up comedy in 2006, mostly talking about the awkward moments he had growing up Muslim in a mostly white, suburban town. “I was a comedy nerd,” Ali said. A friend asked him to perform for the first time at an Islamic conference in Milwaukee, Wis., after a “Def Poetry Jam guy backed out,” he said.
One elderly gentleman came to all of Ali’s sessions. “He was just by himself with this really angry look on his face,” Ali said. “It was driving me nuts.” Finally, half way through one of his sets, Ali looked into the audience and saw the man laughing so hard his face had turned red.
“When I thought about it, it reminded me of the Muslim community in the sense that we’ve gone through a lot of depression and sadness,” Ali said. “We need people to bring back that sense of joy in who we are.”