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New Mexico’s tiny Islamic community spreads a message of inclusion, calm to neighbors

Imam Shafi Abdul Aziz leads a Prayer service at the Islamic Center of New Mexico on Friday April 29, 2016. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Imam Shafi Abdul Aziz leads a Prayer service at the Islamic Center of New Mexico on April 29, 2016. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Members of New Mexico’s tiny Islamic community say they have been touched by the support shown them by Albuquerque residents in response to political rhetoric that has roiled the presidential election campaign in the wake of the rise of ISIS and attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris, Brussels and California that killed dozens.

In December, after Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the country – which he now claims was only “a suggestion until we find out what’s going on” – the New Mexico Islamic Center in Albuquerque was deluged by mail expressing support from individuals, churches and other groups.

A Peace Walk from the Peace & Justice Center heads south down Yale to the Islamic Center of New Mexico in support of the Center after someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the building on October 30, 2014. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

A Peace Walk from the Peace & Justice Center heads south down Yale to the Islamic Center of New Mexico in support of the Center after someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the building on October 30, 2014. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“We literally received so many letters I stopped opening all of them, some well wishers even sent money,” said Abbas Akhil, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico.

When someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the center in October 2014 shortly after an attack on the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa by a gunman who had converted to Islam, hundreds of people joined a hastily arranged peace walk to show their concern.

AKHIL: President of Islamic Center of New Mexico

AKHIL: President of Islamic Center of New Mexico

“It was very heartwarming to see,” Akhil said.

Around 4,000 Muslims were living in New Mexico in 2010, according to the most recent U.S. Religion Census figures. They hail from India, Pakistan, Turkey, the Middle East New York, Rio Arriba County and right here in Albuquerque. They are students, professors, professional people and families.

A very small number are refugees sent to New Mexico for resettlement after having been officially recognized as fleeing persecution by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services are the two agencies that work with refugees. Catholic Charities Executive Director Jim Gannon said his agency receives about 150 individuals a year and up to 25 percent of those are from Middle Eastern or African countries, but he did not have a detailed breakdown.

Tarrie Burnett, program director for Lutheran Family Services, said it received a total of around 100 individuals from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran between Oct. 1, 2014, and Sept. 30, 2015.

Only four Syrian refugees were resettled in New Mexico between Jan. 1, 2015, and May 25 this year, according to the Refugee Processing Center website wrapsnet.org.

Outreach efforts

Even before Trump’s remarks, Muslim groups in New Mexico were making outreach efforts to educate the wider community about Islam. They wanted to counterbalance negative perceptions of Islam generated by acts of violence by the terrorist group ISIS.

ORHAN: “Promote peace and dialogue”

ORHAN: “Promote peace and dialogue”

“People are killing innocent people in the world so we are trying to promote peace and dialogue and friendship, tolerance, living in harmony, mutual respect,” said Necip Orhan, executive director of the Raindrop Foundation Turkish House, which opened in Albuquerque six years ago. The foundation promotes cultural awareness and also support services for people from Turkey and surrounding Turkic countries like Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.

Orhan called the political rhetoric “disturbing” though he did not think it reflected the beliefs of people he had met in Albuquerque.

“But sometimes I feel concerned because that kind of rhetoric can motivate extremists to do something against Muslims, against Hispanics, against immigrants,” Orhan said. If the rhetoric became a reality, said Orhan, “It would be the end of the American dream. America is a role model in terms of co-existence, of living together, many ingredients in the same dish.”

At the University of New Mexico, the Muslim Students Association has held regular open talk sessions on campus.

“We talk to people about Islam and how Islam is misportrayed in the media,” said association president Masood Mirza. “People think what they see on TV is what Islam is.”

The 20-year-old accounting student of Indian and Pakistani heritage said people are often surprised to learn he was born in Albuquerque and is not an Arab.

Worshipers stand in a line at the Friday prayer service at the Islamic Center of New Mexico. They must remove their shoes before they enter the mosque, or masjid. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Worshipers stand in a line at the Friday prayer service at the Islamic Center of New Mexico. They must remove their shoes before they enter the mosque, or masjid. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

“Our goal is to show how diverse a faith this (Islam) is,” Mirza said.

In recent months, groups of Muslim women have been holding public forums at UNM, local libraries and churches where they answer questions about Muslim beliefs, prayers and attitudes toward women in Islam.

At a forum in late April at the Martha Liebert Library in Bernalillo, the first question posed to the six-woman panel was, “Is Islam really violent?”

The immediate and unanimous response to the question from the women panelists was “No.”

Although the panel moderator stated at the outset that there would be no discussion of politics, the panelists acknowledged that among the roughly 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide there are those that have committed violent acts. But those acts were about “power and money” not religious faith. “They have nothing to do with Islam,” said the panel moderator.

QURAISHI: “Islam means submission to God”

QURAISHI: “Islam means submission to God”

“Islam means submission to God. It means peace,” said Indian-born Sabiha Quraishi, who has been in Albuquerque for 27 years.

Muslims greet each other, she said, by saying “As-salaamu alaikum,” which means “peace be upon you.” The response is “Wa alaikum as-salaam,” which means “and upon you peace.”

Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres, who was among a small crowd that attended the forum, was impressed.

“I think it’s really good for us to try to expand our horizons,” said Torres. “For me, it was a lot of new information. I thought it was helpful to hear from people who are believers of that faith.”

Samia VanHaHum and Zainab Saupan play in front of the mosque at Dar al-Islam near Abiquiu in 1987. Dar al-Islam was conceived as an Islamic village where American Muslims could live and worship. It is now an educational center. (Mark Holm/Albuquerque Journal)

Samia VanHaHum and Zainab Saupan play in front of the mosque at Dar al-Islam near Abiquiu in 1987. Dar al-Islam was conceived as an Islamic village where American Muslims could live and worship. It is now an educational center. (Mark Holm/Albuquerque Journal)

Local presence

Muslims have a long history in New Mexico as Akhil demonstrated in a presentation at the Albuquerque Special Collections Library.

Historic sources indicate Muslim presence in New Mexico dates back to the 16th century when a black slave called Estevan or Estevanico from Azamor in Morocco guided Fray Marcos de Niza in the 1539 expedition searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola.

Albuquerque-based historian Monika Ghattas’s 2012 book “Los Arabes of New Mexico” tells the stories of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants who came to New Mexico as traders and peddlers in the 1880s, though many of them were not Muslim.

In the early part of the 20th century, several Palestinian families from a village near Jerusalem settled in Gallup and established themselves as traders in jewelry, rugs and pottery, according to Akhil and Sheikh Imam Nurudeen of the Gallup Islamic Center.

Akhil came to New Mexico from Hyderabad, India, in 1974 to study at New Mexico State University and subsequently worked for Public Service Company of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratories. When he settled in Albuquerque, he said there were about 15 Muslim students and professors who gathered for Friday prayers in a room beside the University of New Mexico chapel.

They were instrumental in the building of the first mosque, or masjid, which opened in 1986. Architect Bart Prince designed the 3,500-square-foot building in a simple functional style without a dome or minaret to fit the community’s limited budget. Prince even provided work notes for the community members who pitched in with the construction work.

“That was a huge help,” Akhil said.

The community eventually outgrew the original building and local architect Tafazul Hussain designed the present 13,000-square-foot center, which opened in 2006. Akhil said 300 to 350 worshipers attend the congregational prayer service on Friday. They hail from dozens of countries: Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey and more.

The center provides a variety of social, cultural and educational programs for children and youth and programs for women.

The original Islamic Center of New Mexico in the early 1990s. The building was razed to make way for a larger center that opened in 2006. (Jeff Alexander/Albuquerque Journal)

The original Islamic Center of New Mexico in the early 1990s. The building was razed to make way for a larger center that opened in 2006. (Jeff Alexander/Albuquerque Journal)

Educational retreat

Another Islamic center, Dar al-Islam, has existed in the rural hinterlands near Abiquiu since 1981.

Nurudin Durkee, a former Catholic from New York, with help from Saudi businessman Sahl Kabbani and former secretary-general of the World Muslim League Dr. Abdullah Naseef, developed the idea of an Islamic village in the U.S. The foundation they formed bought a former ranch near Abiquiu with the intention of creating a center where American Muslims could live and worship, wrote William Tracy in a 1988 Aramco World magazine article.

Plans for Dar al-Islam, which means home of Islam, included a school, medical center and stores. The adobe-built mosque was dedicated in June 1981. In the early 1980s during the construction phase there were more than 100 people living there, including about 40 children who received schooling at the site.

Dr. Mohammad Shafi, chairman of the Dar al-Islam board of trustees, said they eventually sold off the houses on the land to the people who were living in them and it is now an educational center offering retreats for women and families, youth camps and workshops about Islam for teachers.

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