In 1992 there were two mosques in St. Louis. Masjid al-Mu’minun on Grand and Cass in North St. Louis and the Islamic Center on West Pine and Vandeventer in Midtown. Masjid al-Mu’minun catered to the African-American Sunni-orthodox believers under the leadership of Imam Warith-deen Mohammed and the Islamic Center catered to the Muslim immigrant population under the leadership of the Sudanese Islamic-scholar Sheikh Muhammad Nur Abdullah. In addition to this there were places operated by pseudo-Islamic groups: but for the sake of this discussion I will focus on those within the bounds of Islamic orthodoxy.
St. Louis has never been a hotbed of Islam. The indigenous African-American community still lags generations behind the East Coast in terms of development and the immigrant Muslim community is a generation behind the times comparatively speaking to many other cities. However, things are changing and they are changing fast and with that come opportunities and challenges.
Today there are at least 28 mosques in the St. Louis Metropolitan area. From 2 to 28 in 20 years-that is massive growth. Several of these mosques, and the largest concentration of Muslims, are in the city of St. Louis. Along with mosques Muslims have opened up a plethora of businesses. Whereas in the 1990’s it was hard to find a store selling halal meat or a restaurant serving halal meals there are now numerous options within the city of St. Louis. This population has been fueled by refugee populations moving to primarily South St. Louis, an increase in Muslim conversions and second and third generations in the African-American community, and Muslim professionals coming to St. Louis for school and employment.
Recognizing this growth the campaigns of Mayor Francis Slay and Alderman Lewis Reed reached out to the Muslim community in the recent mayoral election. Yet the way these two men approached the issue was remarkably different and this made a difference at the polls. Mr. Reed had as his point-man in the Muslim community either obscure figures representing the teachers-union or controversial figures outside of the mainstream of the community. The teachers-union representative advocates positions that are not that popular within the Muslim community. Muslim families, like non-Muslim families, are leaving the city for the suburbs over the issues of public schools. Those who can afford to do so often choose to send their children to the two private Muslim schools operating in West St. Louis County. Most religious Muslims you talk to, in particular traditional Muslims, support voucher programs which would allow poor and working-class families to send their kids to private Muslims schools. This is a position advocated by former Missouri State Representative Rodney Hubbard (who is also a Muslim). Neither mayoral candidate supported school choice, that’s fine I get that, but why send someone as a point man to Muslims who instead of representing issues that are important to Muslims represents an unpopular position? Furthermore, someone who while not advocating for Muslims, surrounds himself with controversial figures and resorts to thuggish behavior?
Alderman Reed passed the word around the Muslim community that, if elected, he would be creating a Department of Muslim Affairs at City Hall. The fact that this is unconstitutional and had zero chances of actually happening seemed to not bother those repeating this line.
What did Mayor Slay do? As he has done during his entire administration he reached out to known and mainstream figures within the Muslim community, held meetings with imams and attended a Muslim dinner. The people Mayor Slay spoke to within the Muslim community were Muslims speaking about issues important to Muslims. Furthermore, they are Muslims who are known and respected within the community. This paid off big for Mayor Slay at the polls. The Mayor made no false promises, no line about a Department of Muslim Affairs; rather he spoke about outreach to the Muslim community through a Diversity Officer and other departments of the city. Along with the support of leading figures within the Muslim community Mayor Slay also received the support of Muslim elected officials such as State Senator Jamillah Nasheed and former State Representative Rodney Hubbard.
Today Muslims can be found all over St. Louis from north to south. Muslim shopkeepers and cabbies, physicians at Barnes-Jewish, jummah prayers at the SLU chapel, restaurants in north and south city, and many public schools with a large percentage of Muslim students. Muslim immigrant populations have revitalized south side neighborhoods in decline and indigenous Muslims have been at the forefront of many positive developments in North St. Louis.
However, at the same time, there are also a set of challenges associated with the Muslim community. Halal food and religious needs at schools and hospitals, cultural issues surrounding gender-relations regarding interactions with police, extremist groups recruiting immigrant youth, having successful transitions for prison converts, guarding against Islamophobia, etc.
In order for St. Louis to successfully face these challenges the city needs to work with people who know the community and know the issues. In years past City Hall may have reached out to organizations based in West St. Louis County for issues pertaining to city Muslims: but what does someone in Ladue know about the condition of Muslims on Newstead and Natural Bridge or Hickory and Ohio? The city needs to reach out to city Muslims for city solutions. Muslims are a part of the fabric of St. Louis and within our mosques are those committed to the growth and prosperity of this city. In this we need a strong partner in City Hall and that is why many of us came to the conclusion to “Pray Like a Mantis and Vote For Francis” ( remember the general election is still in April).