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).
Last night I attended a meeting of about 20 local Muslim leaders with two special agents from the local FBI field office at Masjid Bilal (the old Islamic Center on the campus of St. Louis University).
I did not really want to attend the event but was encouraged to do so by a friend of mine. The meeting seemed like a bad idea to me from the beginning. The agents have been canvassing the local Muslim community informing us about some Somali kids in Minnesota who went to fight in the conflict in Somalia. At least one of them was apparently a suicide bomber.
When I was first told about this my response was “what the hell does this have to do with us in St. Louis?” These kids were from Minneapolis so talk to the people there. There is also the fact that the agents went to mosques that have almost no Somali attendees. So, are these kids in Minneapolis really the issue, or is this just another excuse to harass some Muslims?
I was under the impression this would be a big town hall event; but it ended up being just some local Muslim leaders meeting in a room with two agents. Those in attendance included Imam Muhammad Hasic ( a local Bosnian imam and power-broker), the imam of the new Nigerian mosque in North County, the Amir of the Northwest Islamic Center, Sheikh Minhaj from the Dar al Islam Masjid, Adil Imdad ( a local mover and shaker), brother Tim Kaminski, Sheikh Nur the Amir of the local Bantu Somalis, and others.
Before attending the event I thought out three basic questions/comments to hurl at the agents. The discussion was more informal and while I had a brother tape it the quality is not good. So, I will just list here my three basic points to the agents and there responses.
- Group Indictment.
There is no need to harass the entire community over the actions of a few. Bernard Madoff is Jewish, the majority of his victims are Jewish, and his crimes are intimately intertwined with the Jewish community. Yet, it is highly doubtful that synagogues with no connection to Madoff across the country are being canvassed.
Similarly, for every one Muslim in America remotely connected to terrorism or some facet of the Islamic movement the government deems to be illegal, there are dozens of Catholic priests who have a thing for raping little boys. Yet when the feds investigate the widespread pedophilia amongst American Catholics, they move very lightly.
Why is it that when it comes to the Muslim community they do not use the same good judgment?
St. Louis is one of those last few American cities that is a black-white city. The city has a slight black-majority and the white population is something like 47%. Of the top 43 metropolitan areas in America St. Louis ranks 40th in terms of Hispanic population leaving St. Louis a racially polarized city along with similar places such as Baltimore and Cincinnati (two cities with striking similarities to Da Lou).
While St. Louis is still a black-white city it is not as much the case as it was 15 years ago when almost everyone you would meet here was black or white. There is a small but growing Hispanic population; but more so than that there is a large and growing refugee population here. It started with the Bosnians in the early 90’s (St. Louis has the biggest Bosnian population in the nation) but has went on o include Somalis, Iraqis, Afghans, Burmese Muslims, West African Muslims, Kosovar Muslims, and others. The immigrant Muslim population of the city is mostly refugee and that is why the community in St. Louis is undeveloped and lacking, most of the community is recent and poor. The other Muslims in the city are either at African-American masajid on the North Side far from refugees, at the Salafi Masjid, or a part of the affluent immigrant (mostly Desi) Muslim population in the suburbs.
A recent article in the New York Times highlights the story of Vedad Ibisevic. Ibisevic is a professional soccer player in the German Bundesliga. Like tens of thousands of other Bosnian Muslim refugees from the war that broke apart the former Yugoslavia Ibisevic stayed in Germany for a brief time before coming to live in South St. Louis. Along with smoke houses, coffee shops and mosques Bosnians brought a rebirth of soccer to Roosevelt High School. The soccer program had been dead at Roosevelt (which by the time the Bosnians got there this once white working-class school was overwhelmingly African-American and in America, percentage-wise, blacks are less interested in soccer than any other group). The piece outlines how Ibisevic made his way from Roosevelt to playing professional soccer in Germany and how he is a hero of sorts to the local Bosnian population here.
It is ironic that not too long after I read that article I got in my cab and picked up a family of one woman and three children heading to Children’s Hospital. They lived in a South Side apartment building I knew to be home to refugees and I mistakenly thought they were Vietnamese because they had an Asian look. After the family got in my cab one little boy, who I guess was about 5, said “we are Muslim” just out of the blue. I smiled and said I am Muslim to and gave them the greeting “Assalaum alaikum” and all four of them returned it. It turns out I was wrong they were not from Vietnam, rather they were a family from Burma. We went on to have a brief conversation and the boy told me he had two names, a Burmese name and a Muslim name. When I tried to get their feelings on the junta that rules Burma and their thoughts on the plight of Muslims there I could not make a connection. I do not know if it was a language issue or an issue of them just not wanting to talk about politics.