Justice and compassion for all: Embracing multifaith inclusion in America’s heartland

Author: Charles Powell

Powell Mosque

For the last decade, I have immersed myself in studying and subsequently developing a better understanding of and appreciation for Islam. I have traveled to Muslim-majority countries such as Bahrain and Oman and developed meaningful relationships and friendships with Muslims—many of whom refer to me as their brother. I’m very fortunate to have Muslim friends throughout the world. I’ve relished intimate tours of mosques, observed prayer times, and enjoyed countless halal dinners. Most recently, I returned from visiting newly made friends and Islamic centers in New Buffalo and Rochester, New York as well as Jacksonville, Florida. This past fall, when I learned that “The Mother Mosque of America” is located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I knew it was time for a road trip. My visit to the first mosque of America will be forever etched in my memory. Who would have thought that the first mosque built in the United States was in Iowa?

When I arrived with my family, we glimpsed an unimposing building. Little did we know that inside that mosque, as in so many communities across the country, was a beautiful tapestry of stories that would leave us with a lasting impression. After we knocked, we were greeted by Imam Taha Tawil, a kindly man who welcomed us inside.

An immigrant himself—like so many in his community—Imam Tawil has an interesting story. In addition to serving as the imam of The Mother Mosque, he serves as the prayer leader for Muslim students at nearby Grinnell College. He formerly served as the chaplain at the police department, as well as a civil rights commissioner in the City of Cedar Rapids; moreover, he was a co-founder of the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County. Imam Tawil is a Palestinian; he was born in Jerusalem and lived there until the Six-Day War of 1967 annexed East Jerusalem. He is a graduate of Jerusalem University with a Bachelor of Laws degree in Islamic Law and holds a master’s degree in Theology and Ethics from the University of Iowa. At Lake Land College in Illinois, he taught World Religion, Ethics, Logic, and Philosophy of Religion for more 15 years. After we exchanged greetings, Imam Tawil invited us down into the crypt of the mosque where the Islamic Cultural and Heritage Center is housed. There, he introduced us to the amazing story of those early Muslims who settled in Iowa and built lives for themselves and their families.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century and in the early part of the twentieth century, Cedar Rapids was a bustling and diverse town. In his latest book, Muslims of the Heartland: How Syrian Immigrants Made a Home in the American Midwest, Edward E. Curtis IV writes, “located on the Cedar River, Cedar Rapids’ success exemplified a formula for Midwestern and US economic growth in the era of industrialization and immigration”(p. 67). The city was surrounded by fertile farmlands and became home to Quaker Oats. By 1897, hundreds of trains arrived and departed Union Station, connecting the people to large cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, and St. Louis. Cedar Rapids was the quintessential American city. At the turn of the twentieth century, many Americans did not want to live in and raise a family in a big city. With a population of around 25,000, Cedar Rapids was just perfect. It had a theater, a library, a convention hall, hotels, and houses of worship. Many of the buildings represented the finest in architectural design. It was an economic powerhouse blessed with river-powered mills, a railroad, and, importantly, ample farmland for a multiplicity of immigrants.

“Today, Muslims from more than 25 countries are represented in Cedar Rapids. The walls of the little mosque, the first in the US, are crowded with pictures and newspaper articles capturing a historical timeline of significant growth.”

Like many of the immigrants settling in Cedar Rapids, Muslims from Lebanon heard that it was a culturally diverse place that welcomed foreigners and their ethnic traditions. The Cedar Rapids Gazette echoed this view of the city being a welcoming place. One article read, “The Bohemian, the Germans, and the French we have known so long are no longer strange.” (Curtis, p. 71). Though most of the first-generation Muslim immigrants came to farm the land, today many of their descendants are lawyers, engineers, physicians, and professors. Upon arrival, Muslims would meet in houses to pray and learn the Qur’an. In 1934, a group of Lebanese Muslims joined efforts and built not only the first mosque in Cedar Rapids, but the first mosque in the United States. Today, Muslims from more than 25 countries are represented in Cedar Rapids. The walls of the little mosque are crowded with pictures and newspaper articles capturing a historical timeline of significant growth.

Though Cedar Rapids is historically known as a safe haven for immigrants, the Muslim community was careful to not stand out too much. Imam Tawil shared with me that prior to the Clinton administration’s “One America” efforts to promote diversity, Muslim women dressed in modest clothing but did not wear a hijab, because they did not want to bring what they perceived to be superfluous attention to themselves. Initially, Tawil said, the local and national Muslim communities thought of themselves as part of the great American “melting pot.” In more recent years, they have become more comfortable being part of a multicultural “salad bowl.”

Since the 1780s, the “melting pot” metaphor has been used to describe how immigrants coming to America tried melt their nationality, culture, and ethnicity into mainstream American culture so as to avoid disharmony. As LeAna B. Gloor writes, “This theory later appropriately came under fire when it became apparent that the mainstream public had no intention of ‘melting’ with certain ‘other’ races and cultures” (p. 29). Yet over the years, the people of Cedar Rapids, by and large, forged friendships within the community and among ethnicities that were enduring. Today, at a time when many Americans have embraced the “salad bowl” metaphor, Muslim-American women in Cedar Rapids and elsewhere by and large enjoy the freedom of wearing their hijabs without much concern of religious persecution or community alienation. 

Imam Tawil invited me and my family to return in the near future to engage with the larger Muslim community in Cedar Rapids, and I’m looking forward to that interaction. Such encounters promote understanding, trust, and collaboration among people of different faiths—encounters that help creates stronger and richer societies. Before departing the mosque, I asked Imam Tawil what message of unity I could take back for my students at the University of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College, where I teach a class on Christian-Muslim dialogue. He said, “Remember we have this in common as followers of Abraham: We believe in one God, the judgement to come, and we work to secure justice and to show compassion towards all in the here and now.”

“A glimpse into the window of a midwestern city of yesterday can open many doors today—doors that welcome diverse people and lead us to human solidarity.”

Imam Tawil’s message nicely translates into the Keough School of Global Affairs’ perspective on integral human development. On the topic of human dignity, Scott Appleby, Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School, says, “Our mission is not to bestow dignity on others; it is to work tirelessly to provide everyone with the means to achieve a material and spiritual life that matches the dignity they already possess.” In large part, Cedar Rapids became home to so many Arab immigrants because it was a community that demonstrated openness, kindness, and respect to newcomers. A glimpse into the window of a midwestern city of yesterday can open many doors today—doors that welcome diverse people and lead us to human solidarity.

Dr. Charles W. Powell serves as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Multifaith Engagement at the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, and as Adjunct Professor of Muslim-Christian Dialogue at Holy Cross College. He travels extensively throughout the Middle East and Europe engaging in conversations with Muslim scholars and practitioners of Islam in order to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Islamic milieu. His recent book project, The Power of Narrative Empathy: A Path to Muslim-Christian Dialogue for Evangelicals, tackles the issues of religious literacy and narrative empathy for Islam and Muslims that are often lacking in the Southern Baptist denomination.