Last summer, a single dad friend of mine reported that his daughter, who is African American, asked him why they didn’t see very many other dads and other “brown kids” at the park. It’s a fair question (though I have to say that most folks wouldn’t object to hanging out with this white mom on a regular basis). Sometimes, in this sugar cookie of a state, we blonde-haired, blue-eyed white people only ever see other blonde-haired, blue-eyed white people in the course of our day, so if you want to have diversity in your life, you need to actively seek it out. (I’m actually green eyed and less-than-naturally blonde, which is pretty much diversity here in Utah, but you get what I mean.) It was in this spirit that I took my children to meet the Muslims in Utah at the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy.
The Utah Islamic Center has opened its doors for visitors in a monthly open house for some time now, but a surge in interest in the event caused it to open its doors to visitors every Friday in February and also some Sundays. That’s how I ended up finding out about the opportunity: A friend of mine responded to the Facebook event made by the Islamic Center. My sister and I took our kids (five between us) in the hope that knowing about Muslims in Utah would give them greater understanding about their community and greater perspective on world events. What actually happened was even better than that.
We had a hard time finding the mosque, because it was tucked into a corner of strip mall with nothing to call attention to it beyond an ordinary-looking sign that could just as easily have read “CarpetsPlus.” It shares an entrance and a grey, Berber-carpeted hallway with a couple of other fairly ordinary-looking office spaces and doesn’t even approach what you might imagine a mosque would look like until you are in the sanctuary itself. Unfortunately, because of this, we ended up being late and missing the 7:30 prayer (still kicking myself over that!). When we arrived (and removed our shoes), we slipped into an open space on the carpet in the main area of worship with about 90 other people, including a fair amount of children.
I had thought that the entire event was more of an open-house format, so I began to get nervous when an hour passed and we were still listening to presentations from the Iman and other members of the mosque. I found them fascinating, but I’ve been to enough LDS stake conferences with my children to know what their limits are as far as listening to adults talk about serious things. It’s a pretty low threshold. I imagined that at any minute they would start running circles around the sanctuary, much to the horror of our hosts and the mothers of all of the children currently sitting quietly upright on three sides of me. My children were starting to get a little loungey as it got later and later in the evening, and I questioned the wisdom of what I was attempting. Perhaps the Utah Muslims wouldn’t be so excited that I had brought along my wiggly LDS kids to disrupt their event!
We ended up staying at least another hour past the speakers, though, because we got caught up talking one-on-one with the members of the mosque. The children busied themselves with looking at the pictures on the wall, reading literature on Islam, interacting with the other children in attendance, and eating all the sweets they could get their hands on. I cautiously approached a woman wearing both a scarf on her head and a veil over her face. The woman who had talked about women’s issues and Islam during the presentation had encouraged us to approach women wearing hijab during the refreshments portion of the evening to talk with them about their personal reasons for choosing to do so, and I knew that in regular life I may not have another opportunity. I especially knew that I would not feel comfortable approaching a woman wearing such an extreme form of hijab, not due to fear but because nothing says “stay away” as much as covering everything but your eyes.
The woman, whose name she taught me how to pronounce but which I have no idea how to spell, was vivacious and bubbly — not at all what you would imagine from a woman conservative enough to cover her face almost entirely on a regular basis. She was passionate about her choice to wear hijab but said that the reasons were so personal and intimate that she didn’t want to be one of the presenters, even though her husband encouraged her to do so. She said she did not grow up in a very strict, religious household but had a religious awakening in college and began to cover her hair in the hijab as a way to find more religious focus. When just covering her hair did not give her entirely the focus she wanted, she started covering her face, too. She doesn’t wear it all the time (she understands some may find it intimidating), but she did note that when she was dating her husband, he never saw her face until they were engaged.
We had a great conversation about her experience wearing the hijab and the experience of non-Muslims encountering Muslims in Utah. First and foremost, my concern would be to not make such a woman feel uncomfortable. Since I was not familiar with the religious context of veiling the face, I would hesitate to approach simply because I wouldn’t want to offend. I assured her that as an LDS woman, I felt empathy with the struggles that Muslims in Utah might face. We certainly have our own history of the general population misunderstanding and demonizing our religion.
We also had a lovely chat with an older man named Sam who explained more about the mosque (all 150 of the children meet in that same sanctuary in different corners for their religious instruction! Imagine holding all Sunday School classes in the gym of the church) and told us about his experience immigrating to the U.S. I was in and out of this conversation as I was tracking my youngest in her circular path through the crowd, balancing books on her head. Yes, seriously. Books on her head. Eventually we parted, wishing we could stay longer. I asked my children what they thought of the evening, and they were similarly engaged, citing things in even the more presentational (read: traditionally boring for kids) part of the evening. We talked all the way home in the car about what we had learned and what our impressions were.
As I thought about it, I realized that beyond gaining a greater understanding for Islam and for Muslims in Utah, the event was also an opportunity to strengthen community ties and stand up with a potentially vulnerable group in our country. The members of the mosque were very genuinely happy we were there, and we were very genuinely happy to be there. They wanted to be part of us, and we wanted to be part of them. Rather than being separate groups with different cultural practices, we were all Utahns seeking to spread love and understanding. It made me feel really good to be able to do something proactive to show my support for Muslims in Utah, and it was extremely gratifying to have those positive feelings reflected back. The evening was full of hope. While negative aspects of the national conversation about Muslims were acknowledged, the underlying assumption was that we were here because we all wanted to have a positive relationship. No one was guarded. No one was angry. It was just lovely. It was exactly as the world should be.