Islamophobia in the United States rests on a number of negative assumptions about Islam and Muslims. Many Americans consider Islam to be a foreign religion that is incompatible with Western values.
Politicians and media commentators commonly describe American Muslims with suspicion, associating them with terrorism, violence, and isolation from the wider American community. These stereotypes of Muslims as foreign and isolated does not account for the long history of Islam and Muslim communities in the United States or the important contributions Muslims around the country make to their local communities.
In a time of rising Islamophobia and increasing rates of hate crimes directed against Muslims in the United States, it is important to dismantle this stereotype. Muslims live in cities, suburbs, and small towns across the United States. Muslims represent a significant number of American doctors, engineers, teachers, sanitation workers, nurses, a growing number of politicians, and other essential jobs at both the local and national levels. In contrast to the harmful stereotype of Muslims as inherently foreign and their religion as incompatible with American life, Muslims of all walks of life play vital roles in communities across the country. For many, it is precisely their Islamic faith that motivates them to be involved in their communities.
The Islamic Center of Greater Toledo (ICGT) in Perrysburg, Ohio is just one example of a Muslim organization that plays a vital role in its local community. As one of the oldest Muslim religious organizations in the Midwest, members of ICGT have formed an integral part of the Northwest Ohio community for nearly one hundred years. Today, members of the ICGT represent over 30 nationalities from around the world, all of whom come together to build community through their shared Islamic faith.
In the 1930s, Muslim immigrants from Syria and Lebanon founded the Syrian American Muslim Society in Toledo. This organization sponsored the opening of the first Islamic Center in Toledo in 1954 on East Bancroft Street. As the Toledo Muslim community grew throughout the 1960s and 70s, a new location became necessary to accommodate growing numbers of worshipers. Construction began on the current site of the ICGT in Perrysburg in 1980, and in October 1983 the present-day mosque was officially opened to the public. The ICGT is the first purpose-built mosque of its kind in all of North America, constructed in classical Ottoman style with a large domed ceiling and two minarets.
In addition to serving as a place of worship for the Toledo-area Muslim community, the ICGT serves as a gathering place for local students, clubs, and community events for people of all faiths and backgrounds. For example, students at nearby Bowling Green State University have used the space for university events and teacher training programs. The ICGT serves a similar role in the Toledo area as many churches do in other communities across the Midwest, acting as a site not only for religious worship but also as a meeting space for general community events.
Every year, the ICGT sponsors an International Festival at the mosque, inviting members of the local Toledo community of all faiths and backgrounds to join them for a family-friendly day of educational activities, carnival games, and food from around the world. The Muslim Voices Project sent our three graduate student coordinators to attend the 2019 International Festival on September 14 to learn more about how the ICGT has built a welcoming and supportive environment for Muslims in the Northwest Ohio region. This is the first post in a series of upcoming blog posts where we share the stories of the people we met at this event.
According to Dr. Fatima Al-Hayani, a retired professor of Middle East and Islamic affairs at the University of Toledo and a longtime member of the ICGT, the larger Toledo community has been nothing but welcoming to their Muslim neighbors, even in times of crisis and rising Islamophobia. She recalls how, in the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the ICGT was inundated with expressions of support from local churches, synagogues, and community members across the Toledo metro area. According to mosque leaders like Dr. Al-Hayani and Dr. Abdel-Wahab Soliman, the ICGT’s long-standing outreach and community building efforts within the broader Toledo area have helped them navigate the rising tide of Islamophobia in the United States in recent years.
When Americans recognize that Muslims are integral members of their communities and that Islam has a long-standing history in the United States, we can begin to dismantle stereotypes about Muslims as foreign, insular, and disconnected from broader American society. We can start to understand that Islam is a vibrant part of the story of America and that Muslim Americans find inspiration from their faith to build community across boundaries of religion, race, culture, and language. The Islamic Center of Greater Toledo (ICGT) is just one example of the kind of interreligious community that exists in cities, towns, and suburbs across the country, bringing together Muslims and non-Muslims for celebrations like the annual International Festival.