Mosque and Islamic center to open Saturday in Sacramento area

source: The Sacramento Bee

This Saturday, a $5.5 million Moorish-style mosque and Islamic center will open to the public across from American River College.

The 21,000-square-foot, two-story, ochre-colored center features arched entrances and a 54-foot-high green dome with a crescent on top.

“The architecture is a mixture of what’s in the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina (in Saudi Arabia) and the Moorish mosque in Cordoba, southern Spain,” said project director Javed Iqbal. “It blends well with California Spanish architecture.”

The new Masjid and Center for Higher Islamic Learning was built by SALAM, the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims.

SALAM, which began as a P.O. box in 1987, now holds Friday prayer for 800 people from 25 nations, including about 40 converts to Islam, said founder Metwalli Amer.

The new center houses a gift shop, school and educational programs, with an 8,000-volume library planned. It will be open “to all members of the community, regardless of religion or gender,” said Amer. “This will truly be an American Islamic center – it’s moderate, it reaches out, it works with others.”

Saturday’s grand opening comes in the face of growing Islamophobia. Many Americans are angry over a proposed Islamic center near ground zero in Manhattan. Last month Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, launched hearings on “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response.”

Builds community ties

But SALAM has been able to expand because it has condemned acts of terror and hatred against all people, hasn’t shied away from tough questions and pioneered open relationships with Jews, Christians and the full range of Sacramento’s ethnic groups, Amer said. “We’re accepted, not just tolerated.”

California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg vigorously protested a recent speech at SALAM by Auschwitz survivor Hajo Meyer, who compared what happened to him and other Jews in Nazi Germany in the 1930s to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But “I’m still proud we are a community that respects and welcomes all faiths,” Steinberg said. “The fact a mosque can grow and expand without the kind of rancor we saw in New York City speaks very well of Sacramento’s Muslim American community and Sacramento in general.

“Muslim leaders here are very active in building community ties,” Steinberg said.

Rashid Ahmed, a Pakistani American who founded the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), said that while there’s no doubt that Islamophobia fueled by Glenn Beck and other talk show hosts is rising, “SALAM has done a wonderful job of maintaining a moderate, tolerant path showing we can live together with others. It’s easy to fall into the extremes.”

Some conservative Muslims have criticized SALAM’s willingness to embrace all cultures and dialogue with Jews and other non-Muslims – as well as its progressive views on divorce and male-female interactions, Amer said.

“They said, ‘How can you sit with non-Muslims who don’t believe in Islam or our prophet?'” Amer said. “But how will others know about the teachings of Islam unless you explain who you are and what your faith is?”

Other Muslims have chastised SALAM for hosting Muslim “speed-dating” events where single men and women chat without chaperones, he said. “If you don’t put women in a climate where young men and women can sit and get to know each other, how could some of our women get married? They need an organization like SALAM to break the ice and bring them together. Our men are allowed to marry non-Muslims but our women are not.”

SALAM’s progressive take on women’s issues is reflected by the fact it has two women on the mosque board – a rarity even in the United States. It supports divorces when one partner feels unfairly treated and extremely unhappy and reconciliation doesn’t seem possible, Amer said.

The center’s new prayer hall – open since September – allows men and women to pray in the same room. “Some Muslims follow the culture rather than the religion and put sisters in a locked room or behind a partition,” he said.

SALAM’s imam, Mohamed Abdul-Azeez, is invited to speak in Boston and other cities. He hasn’t been afraid to criticize the lack of democracy in Islamic states.

65,000 Muslims in region

Sarfraz Anwar, president of Sacramento’s Downtown Mosque – thought to be the oldest mosque west of the Mississippi – celebrated SALAM’s expansion. “We’re very happy because we need more worship space,” Anwar said. He said the number of Muslim Americans in the greater Sacramento area has doubled to 65,000 in the last 20 years.

Despite SALAM’s progressive stance, “there’s no difference in the basic beliefs,” Anwar said. “We worship the same almighty Allah and the same principles.”

Amer, a former accounting professor at California State University, Sacramento, donated $500,000 to the new center, along with his wife, Rosalie, who’s working on the new library.

Bassam Dahduli, a Muslim American real estate investor from Fair Oaks, has pledged $1.5 million and raised $1.5 million more.

“In 1996 I had nothing,” said Dahduli. “I was coming back from a heart attack and bankruptcy. If I had $10 in my pocket I’d give it to the mosque. What I gave came back 120 times. I didn’t have a car and I ended up with six shopping centers I manage and own and several other successful businesses.”

Dahduli believes in the center and the SALAM school, which now has 65 students from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade and will add a class every year.

SALAM “has done a really good job of presenting the true image of Muslims in America,” said Dr. Salam Al-Marayati, president and national director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Unfortunately, Muslims are often seen for what they’re not – they are not radicals, they are not extremists – and yet’s that’s all we see in the media.”

Of the roughly 1,000 U.S. mosques, SALAM has blazed the trail of civic engagement, Al-Marayati said. “Other mosques fall into the trap of ethnocentrism, becoming centers for homesick Pakistanis, Egyptians, Arabs and South Asians.”

While some of those mosques fall victim to isolation, “SALAM’s going full force into the American mainstream.”

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