Explaining Islam

In Las Cruces, N.M., members of a local mosque want to dispel rumors about Muslims
(From left to right) Mustafa Azimi, wife Zarifa Azizi, Sureyya Hussain, Reema Iqbal and Radwan Jallad stand for a photo during the downtown farmers market in Las Cruces, N.M. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/For The Washington Post)

The mother and daughter arrived just before 8 a.m., unpacking the table and folding chairs from the back of a white minivan. It was a chilly 43 degrees, and the sun cast long shadows between the farmers market stalls and the funnel cake truck, the smell of grilled meat and wood smoke hovering.

Sureyya Hussain carefully laid out the Korans.

(From left to right) Mustafa Azimi, wife Zarifa Azizi, Sureyya Hussain, Reema Iqbal and Radwan Jallad stand for a photo during the downtown farmers market in Las Cruces, N.M. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/For The Washington Post)

Soon, the curious passersby began to approach with their questions, their comments and their concerns. The answers, Hussain hoped, would inform and enlighten — or at least spur constructive conversations about being Muslim in America.

“We wanted to have a voice about what Islam is for us,” said Hussain, 50, who organizes the monthly table, where anyone can come to learn about Islam.

Muslims have been facing what they see as a tide of vitriol against them during the past two years, which has included hate crimes and harassment. Muslim leaders say that sentiment is fueled by the policies of President Trump’s administration, including attempts to ban immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

Add to that the terrorism done in the name of the Islamic State extremist group — including a deadly truck attack on Halloween afternoon in New York City — and many Muslims feel like there is a constant need to defend their identities and religion from suspicion.

[A familiar anxiety and a fear of backlash in Paterson, N.J.]

For some of the nation’s small-town mosques and groups of recent immigrants, the instinct has been to turn inward, keep a low profile, buy security cameras, and tell young people to avoid confrontations. Other communities have tried the exact opposite: public engagement.

The Islamic Center of Las Cruces, the only mosque in this desert town of 101,000 about an hour north of the Mexican border, is one of them.

Mustafa Azimi, sitting in the middle, and other members of the local mosque speak about their religion with passersby. They also provide free Korans and pamphlets on different Islamic beliefs. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/For The Washington Post)

Hussain and other members of the mosque’s Dawa — or outreach committee — come here, to the town’s farmers market, and set up a sign that says “Know Islam” amid the stalls hawking apples, kettle corn and handmade soaps. They provide free Korans and pamphlets on different Islamic beliefs, and then they sit there for five hours, offering themselves up for whatever comes their way.

They want to get out in front of the hate, nip it in the bud before it starts. Let them come with their stereotypes and their fears, but give them answers.

The questions on a typical Saturday have range: “What do you worship?” “Do you wear your scarves in the shower?” “Do you walk behind your husband?” (The answers to the last two were “No.”)

Sometimes the conversations get difficult — maybe even a little uncomfortable or combative — but the volunteers do their best to stay calm and friendly.

“I could very easily sit in my house and hang out, but I’ve decided to do something, and this is the consequence of doing something,” said Mustafa Azimi, 27, a nurse, who joined Hussain and her daughter, along with his wife and another member of the mosque. “People are going to ask you questions. The goal is showing the community that Islam is not what the news portrays. If people knew that Muslims are also — like, that I’m a nurse who also knows how to cook food — that would be awesome.”

Las Cruces, the state’s second-largest city, sits on the desert’s edge against the backdrop of the jagged Organ Mountains. It is home to New Mexico State University, a 101-year-old church and the thick adobe walls of the old town Mesilla.

More than half the population here is Hispanic, and Radwan Jallad, an electrical engineer and member of the mosque’s Dawa committee, estimates there are about 500 Muslims, most of them foreign exchange students at the university. Approximately 200 show up for the Friday prayer at the Islamic Center of Las Cruces, founded in the early 1980s, where Jallad, Azimi and others take turns delivering the weekly sermon because there is no regular imam.

The Muslims of Las Cruces say they have been spared the xenophobia and racist violence that they hear about elsewhere. There have been no slurs spray-painted on the walls of their mosque; no women in headscarves who have reported being attacked while shopping. Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, someone threw a bunch of beer cans and a wooden cross onto the grass outside the mosque, but otherwise they consider themselves lucky.

Then as they sensed the national political climate shifting a few years ago — and as they perceived there was an increasing amount of misinformation about Islam — someone broached the idea of having a table at the farmers market.

“Overall it’s been wonderful,” said Hussain, a lawyer who grew up in Wyoming and is a mother of three. “People are friendly. People have a lot to say. Even people who disagree with us.”

Radwan Jallad, middle, greets a friend during the downtown farmers market in Las Cruces, N.M. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/For The Washington Post)
Zack Kershaw, a visitor to the Islamic Center's table, holds a Koran. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/For The Washington Post)
Left: Radwan Jallad, middle, greets a friend during the downtown farmers market in Las Cruces, N.M. on October 28. Right: Zack Kershaw, a visitor to the Islamic Center's table, holds a Koran. (Photos by Ivan Pierre Aguirre/For The Washington Post)

The visitors on this Saturday included dog-walkers, families and elderly couples. There was a man with a bicycle who asked if all Muslims are required to make the hajj pilgrimage — no, they said — and another man who asked if it was appropriate to address Muslims with “Salaam” — sure, they said.

At one point, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), trailed by a small scrum of aides and local TV reporters, stopped by and greeted everyone at the table.

Then came the two heavily tattooed, bearded men in motorcycle apparel who wanted a copy of the Koran. And then there was the woman wearing a small dog in a pouch, who asked whether anyone was interested in puppy adoption, before adding a comment they have heard from others in this liberal-leaning city that backed Hillary Clinton: “I want to apologize for this president. He does not represent us.”

One woman, who introduced herself as Hannah, a recent college graduate and Christian, asked if they had ever read the Bible and whether Muslims view it as “corrupted.” She also wondered how Muslims think about sin if they don’t believe Jesus died for them.

“For us, prophets die, prophets sacrifice, and that’s what makes them great,” Hussain explained. “We disagree on the fact that human beings carry the stain of original sin. But that doesn’t mean we can’t converse and can’t be friends.”

A lot of people have questions about what Muslims believe, especially when it comes to violence, Christianity and America.

Sureyya Hussain, who organizes the monthly table, answers questions about her religion. 'We wanted to have a voice about what Islam is for us,' she said. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/For The Washington Post)

So the group hands out pamphlets like “What do Muslims think about Jesus?” and “Muslims stand against terrorism if they stand with Islam.” And they display a collection of books with titles like “All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim” and “The Muslim Next Door; The Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing.”

Sometimes though, there are the people who don’t have any questions, just opinions.

It was late morning, the throngs of people growing between the stands of pecans and dried chile peppers, when a man with a black Chihuahua in a pink sweater walked by. Azimi immediately felt a surge of anxiety.

The last time this man came by the table, the conversation quickly got heated and voices were raised.

But John Thomas and Robertita — the Chihuahua — wandered over anyway. Thomas is a member of ACT for America, a group that has accused U.S. Muslim organizations of supporting terrorism and of trying to impose Islamic law across the country.

He wanted to talk about “political Islam,” which he believes is “a threat to our Western values.”

[This group believes Islam threatens America: ‘It’s a spiritual battle of good and evil.’]

Azimi told him there wasn’t really anyone at the table who could help — they had no idea what Thomas was talking about. He suggested Thomas talk to a national Muslim group instead and eventually, Thomas walked away.

“We get more people that are stopping just to tell us that they either love us being here, or, like ACT for America, yell us down,” Hussain said. “We get more of that because both sides feel the need to tell us how they feel.”

As 1 p.m. approached and the farmers market began to wind down, a man in a cowboy hat, lugging a large metal washtub, walked up, looked at the sign and struck up a conversation with Jallad.

“So, detractors say your holy Koran says it’s okay to kill non-Muslims,” said the man, who introduced himself as “Washtub Jerry.”

“The Koran says if you kill one soul, it’s as if you’ve killed all of humanity,” Jallad answered.

Jerry considered this, but said it has been difficult for him to get the right information on Islam because there are so many conflicting voices out there.

Mustafa Azimi, center, joins another farmers market discussion group hosted by Randy Harris, a friend, whose table is usually positioned near the Islamic Center’s table. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/For The Washington Post)

“What’s the word Muslims use for us because we’re not Muslim?” Jerry asked. Jallad knew he was talking about the word “infidel,” so he got right to it.

“I’m an infidel,” Jerry said.

“No, you’re not.” Jallad said, noting it’s more complex than that. “The Koran describes the infidel from the time of the prophet — idol worshipers — that’s where the word infidel comes from. But the Koran does not put infidel on Jews and Christians.”

Jerry continued with a question: “Do you follow sharia law? Do you want sharia law? Because it’s not compatible with the Constitution.”

Jallad explained: “Sharia law says you’re required to follow the law of the country.”

Jerry seemed satisfied. He accepted a Koran, and said he would visit again.

The group handed out 10 Korans and about as many pamphlets that Saturday. They answered tough questions. They heard words of support.

“The thing about doing the booth is it doesn’t matter if we get a lot of people. It just picks me up,” Hussain said. “Especially after the election, when we heard all the negative rhetoric, it really makes me feel good to be a part of the community like this.”

Credits: Story by Abigail Hauslohner.