News » Feature

St. Louis Muslims Are Seeking Open Minds — or Even Just a Truce

by

PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI

In March 2016, the Missouri chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations drew national attention for showing up to the Trump rally in downtown St. Louis with donuts. Instead of joining a protest line, the local Muslims attempted to confront the "America First" crowd with kindness (and high cholesterol), an approach that proved charming, media-savvy and only occasionally tense. "Allah is a pig! Go fuck yourselves," one man shouted. Most of the others took a donut.

Almost exactly one year later, nine Muslim-Americans, all St. Louisans, show up at CAIR Missouri's main office in Chesterfield. The time for donuts is over. With Trump elected, and Muslim-majority countries targeted in a series of immigration crackdowns, CAIR and its staff are convinced they need to up the ante. Instead of just earning positive media coverage, they're seeking a way to truly engage with the people who distrust them. They're not looking for converts. They just need a truce.

The group assembled at CAIR's St. Louis headquarters this Thursday have come in response to a call for auditions to join the organization's team of "Muslim speakers," a role that will have them speaking not only to classrooms or interfaith conferences, but potentially before crowds with little exposure to Islam outside of Fox News. Both secular and religious Muslims are among those auditioning, including a veiled elementary school teacher and a retired engineer who identifies as Muslim but who was also baptized, decades ago, as a college student.

The diversity extends to CAIR's own staff. Chris Caras, the organization's Islamic education director, is a Peoria-born convert who settled in St. Louis after spending several years studying Islamic legal theory in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.

Addressing the group, Caras lays out the mission for the new outreach program. "The very first and foremost goal is humanizing Muslims, so that people do not see Muslims like savages or barbarians," he says.

Driving home his point in sermon-like tones, Caras reminds the group of the stakes at hand, the importance of reaching across the divide at this moment in history. "If you have studied hate and genocide," he intones, "the heart of enabling these atrocious acts against humanity is dehumanization. That's why we want to make our presentations personal."

And what they share tonight is personal, even more so than Caras anticipated. These American Muslims aren't inexperienced orators or (as he expected) individuals motivated primarily by the power of their faith. Instead, they are corporate professionals, doctors and college students. And if defending their intertwined identity as American Muslims means volunteering as unpaid ambassadors for CAIR, they are ready to answer to the call.

Although the people auditioning are instructed to spend five minutes preparing a presentation on a subject chosen by Caras, they're given free rein to present a persuasive case for why Muslims should be treated as regular Americans, not potential terrorists or agents of Sharia.

Sandi Bowers approaches the lectern at the front of the room while carrying a squirming infant. Bowers wears a niqab, a full face-veil that shrouds everything but her eyes. The St. Louis-born elementary school teacher has plenty of experience handling a tough audiences: Her day job involves facing classrooms of fourth and fifth graders.

As Muslims, "we need more interactions with people," Bowers says. That's not always easy, as some people are simply intimidated by her niqab. They presume that any Muslim who looks or dresses like her must be the victim of abuse or subjugation.

Sandi Bowers, a St. Louis elementary school teacher and member of CAIR-Missouri's team of "Muslim Speakers," addresses the visitors to the March 26 open house. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Sandi Bowers, a St. Louis elementary school teacher and member of CAIR-Missouri's team of "Muslim Speakers," addresses the visitors to the March 26 open house.

"I love answering questions," Bowers says. "I can break down the idea that all Muslim women are bound by whatever stereotypes they have in their mind. Just the fact that I have a voice, that I'm educated and I have a career could help break those stereotypes."

Then again, there are times when the situation calls for more aggressive action.

That's a situation Mohamad Alhalabi raises in his speech. Back in 2003, Alhalabi was working as an engineer and regional director for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' division of water protection and soil conservation. That year, he attended a convention of public water suppliers in Springfield, Missouri, convened to discuss the security of the state's water treatment facilities and the public's drinking water.

"There was 300 people attending," says Alhalabi. "I was sitting in the back listening. I heard, one after the other, speakers standing up and bad-mouthing foreign people. And the message was, don't hire these people because their goal is to come and poison your water."

He couldn't remain on the sidelines.

"I couldn't take it anymore. I told them I wanted the mic, and I told them I was one of the five directors in charge of this whole show. I told them that I'm a Muslim and I have more than 1.2 million people under my control. I protect their public drinking water from hazardous waste, toxic waste, nuclear waste, you name it. I regulate everything. I told them, 'My name is Mohamad. Are you going to drink my water?'" It's a great story, and gets a rousing laugh from his like-minded comrades in the CAIR office.

But not all the group's audiences are going to be so friendly. Caras informs the speakers that in just two weeks, on March 26, the organization will be hosting an open house in a north county mosque.

"The target audience for this event is Trump supporters, right wingers, right GOP folks," he says. "We're going to be advertising with the radio stations, their social media sites, their blogs, as much as we can."

They're calling the event, Caras says, "Make America Whole Again."

comment