An American Mosque: Blending 7th Century Revelations With Midwest Suburbia
Thirty miles southwest of downtown Chicago, in a village where suburban sprawl and farmland coexist, sits a scaled-down version of Jerusalem’s iconic Dome of the Rock.
The Prayer Center of Orland Park, one of the most popular mosques in Illinois, overlooks a two-lane highway and a soybean field near a southwest edge of the village. But convincing Midwest suburbia to approve the construction of a mosque down the street from a Catholic cemetery and a Costco was a challenge.
The men who built this mosque a decade ago set out to create what they called a “model mosque” -- a blueprint for what an American Muslim house of worship could be. Along the way they encountered resistance from local residents, a shooting, turnover in leadership and a renewed distrust in Muslim Americans.
The congregation knows some people distrust Muslims; Donald Trump’s election seemed to be a reminder of that. But when Orland Park became one of the few areas to vote for Trump in Democratic Cook County, this congregation again found themselves on uncertain ground in an America that can often feel hostile to their faith.
‘We started with nothing’
The mosque’s founders, Mohamed Krad and Malik Ali, met in 2003 and are now close friends. But Krad, a soft-spoken doctor, and Ali, the man who once owned the rights to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” couldn’t be more different.
Krad immigrated from Syria in the mid-1970s and became a doctor. He initially bought the land in Orland Park to build a home for his wife and eight children. He said he then had a dream telling him to instead use the land for a mosque.
But to actually build a mosque he needed someone with local connections and business savvy. He needed Ali.
The son of Palestinian immigrants, Ali grew up in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. He and his brother started MPI Media Group, which produces low-budget horror movies and owns the distribution rights to classic TV shows and films.
“We started with nothing,” Krad said. “It was an idea, it was a need, it was a community need, but we didn’t have a single dollar.”
What they did have was a shared vision for a 21st century American mosque, with its heart in a 7th century religious revelation and its head in Chicago’s suburbs.
The men knew that turning their dream into a reality wasn’t a quick process. They understood that many saw Islam as a foreign faith, despite its long history in the United States. In 2000, they saw protests derail a plan for a new mosque in nearby Palos Heights. The mosque leaders were viewed as outsiders, and local politicians weren’t on their side.
Krad and Ali didn’t want to make the same mistakes, so they hired lawyers and planners, studied zoning regulations and worked closely with the mayor and other local officials. They were wary of accusations that foreign interests controlled American mosques, so they made sure they had American-born citizens on the mosque board and turned to local donors -- 900 of them gave $4 million in two years.
“Not one red cent came from overseas, and we were very, very careful about that,” Ali said. “For a mosque to succeed, it has to be from the community.”
Their proposal came less than three years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and suspicion of Muslim Americans still ran high. In Orland Park, some residents accepted having Muslim neighbors, but thought building a mosque was going too far.
Hundreds of people protested at three contentious hearings, but the village board eventually voted unanimously to greenlight the mosque on June 21, 2004.
They’d won a place in the religious landscape, but they’d also seen a side of their neighbors many hadn’t encountered before.
The building, the bullet
Krad wanted to build a mosque for a young and tolerant community that focused on study and good citizenship. A place with plenty of parking, inspiring programs and a great website. A place that engaged with its neighbors and stood up to bigotry.
The mosque, which opened in June 2006, cost $4 million and took more than a year to build. It featured white walls, tall arched windows, and red prayer carpets on the women’s side and blue on the men’s side. The basement has windows and flat screen TVs for women and children to watch the action upstairs.
Then, on March 25, 2014, came a reminder that after nearly 10 years in Orland Park, not everyone was accepting.
On that morning, the mosque was damaged when somebody opened fire on the dome as about 30 people gathered inside for prayer.
Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy -- a former Secret Service agent who took a bullet for President Ronald Reagan during a 1981 assassination attempt in Washington D.C. -- said investigators first thought the bullet was a stray shot from a hunter. Police later determined the shot was probably from a sniper aiming at the mosque from atop a neighboring building. Nobody has ever been charged.
Mosque member Manel Saleh said her father was one of the people praying inside that morning. He later told her that he wasn’t afraid, and that a sniper wouldn’t scare him away.
Saleh said her children were attending preschool at the mosque. She said it comforted her to see an Orland Park police officer in the parking lot every morning for the rest of the school year.
The bullet is still trapped inside the layers of the copper dome, and the bullet holes can still be seen from inside the main prayer hall. Ali said it’s too expensive to rent scaffolding, and it’s not worth fishing it out.
A new imam, a new controversy
Since the mosque opened in 2006, at least half a dozen religious leaders have come and gone. Some imams left because they didn’t like suburban life; others were sent packing because they couldn’t connect with such a diverse congregation.
Older immigrants wanted a leader who made them feel at home and gave sermons in Arabic, while the younger generation liked the hip imams they saw on YouTube. They spoke of “unicorn mosques” -- places with coffee shops and free Wi-Fi.
“In the past, the Muslim community depended on importing their leaders from outside, and that caused a lot of problems for them, because they don’t understand the culture, they don’t understand the society,” Krad said.
In January 2015, they tried again.
Kifah Mustapha, 48, was born in Lebanon and spent two decades in Chicago. He is fluent in Arabic and English, and is popular with young and old. Krad and Ali hired him away from his job as an associate imam from a popular mosque in nearby Bridgeview.
But neither Mustapha’s spiritual leadership nor practical skills make him immune from the kind of suspicion that often shadows prominent Muslim leaders in America.
There’s a website accusing Mustapha of having ties to extremists and terrorism -- it’s the first thing that comes up when you Google his name. It was created by Steven Emerson, a controversial self-described terrorism expert best known for the 1994 film “Jihad in America.”
Years before taking the job as imam in Orland Park, Mustapha worked for a Muslim charity that was shut down by the U.S. government. Some of the leaders were convicted of channeling money to Hamas. Mustapha was never charged with a crime, but Emerson’s accusations led to Mustapha losing his job as a volunteer chaplain for the Illinois State Police. The Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the state police on behalf of Mustapha. A judge dismissed the lawsuit nearly three years later.
Mustapha remains popular with the Muslim community. Board member Badie Ali called the Emerson site a “smear campaign,” and said Mustapha has the full support of the board and mosque membership.
“I don’t pay attention to it anymore,” Mustapha said. “I mean, Islam now is being bashed. I mean, before it was personal, but now something more precious than myself, which is my faith, is being attacked daily in the media, so this is part of the challenge we have to face. I will let my work speak for myself. People can talk whatever they want.”
‘I think it could be more inclusive’
A national study by the Islamic Society of North America found that less than 15 percent of American mosques are “women friendly.” The country’s top Muslim legal scholars have demanded more leadership roles and better prayer spaces for women.
In Orland Park, women play active roles at the mosque, and since Mustapha came on board more women have taken on leadership roles. Women in Orland Park lead youth and educational programs and public service projects. They also serve alongside men on committees that set direction for the mosque.
Still, women occasionally bristle at the gender segregation at the mosque, and several women said they wish it would change. Men lead the executive board, men enter through the mosque’s front door while most women use a side entrance, and men take over the women’s balcony on Fridays when the prayer service is crowded.
“I think it could be more inclusive,” said Heba Abbasi, who teaches at a private school in Chicago. “And I think it started off with the intention, but as a community grows, I think what ends up happening with a lot of our Muslim communities is that they establish a separate place for women, and they mean well, but it ends up causing a disconnect.”
Preventing extremists, encouraging youths
The congregation worries about extremists luring young people, like the young man from Bolingbrook who pleaded guilty in 2015 to attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
The leaders in Orland Park knew it was important to create a youth program and get it right. Old-timers wanted to keep it serious and griped when kids played dodgeball in the mosque. But the younger guys said it had to be fun or nobody would come.
Now, in that same basement where women and children gather for the Friday prayer services, more than 100 teens meet for a weekly program called Friday Night Live. Girls sit on the left, boys on the right -- and parents are asked to go home so the kids can speak freely.
The program is led by college students, and has the vibe of a megachurch youth group. It’s so popular that other mosques have copied it.
Mahy El-Shikh, 18, graduated from Sandburg High School last year and is a freshman at the University of Chicago. She likes to play her black acoustic guitar and even has some covers on YouTube under the name “Hijabi Wasabi.”
“A lot of my friends started recognizing me as, oh, she’s the musician. A lot of my Muslim friends," she said. "A lot of girls kind of stray away from the idea of getting into theater, or getting into arts in general. My goal is I want to change that.”
In a way, Mahy represents the founders’ dream: she balances Islam with a full life as a suburban American teen. She wears a hijab and doesn’t date. She plays snare drum. She is basically a band geek.
Do not be afraid
Ten years after launching their dream of a model mosque, Ali and Krad said that by many measures it is more successful than they imagined.
The congregation has grown, and property values near the mosque were some of the highest in the village. Last year, they added a second Friday prayer service just to fit everybody, and they hope to keep building -- a youth center and maybe a second mosque in nearby Homer Glen.
They said they want the next generation to lead the way. Some young men who grew up in the mosque are already studying to be imams.
While Ali and Krad remain optimistic, others worry about the future of Muslim Americans under Trump.
“I feel like he’s just made it okay for people to express their hate, for the things he’s said,” according to Manel Salah, a former public school teacher whose kids attend the mosque’s preschool. “So I’m sure people have always felt that way, but now they feel it’s okay to express it, which is sad.”
Mustapha has encouraged the congregation to fight stereotypes by becoming more active in the community.
“Where do we go now? What do we do? … We cannot ignore the fact that the rhetoric that was during the campaign was kind of scary,” he said.
Mustapha told the congregation to know their rights, to run for local office, vote and volunteer. He told them to know their neighbors, to be good citizen and good Muslims. It was the same message he has been telling them all along.
He added one more message during a recent sermon: Do not be afraid.
Audio story edited by Deborah George and Cate Cahan, produced and sound designed by Derek John with production assistance from Luke Vander Ploeg.
Funding support from the Gruber Family Foundation and a Ford Foundation Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life.