In Iowa, Campaign Season Finds Muslims Caught In A Harsh Spotlight Many of Cedar Rapids' Muslims have long roots in the U.S. Yet the political climate there has them feeling out of place. "I just want to live my life without having to explain myself," says one imam.
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In Iowa, Campaign Season Finds Muslims Caught In A Harsh Spotlight

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In Iowa, Campaign Season Finds Muslims Caught In A Harsh Spotlight

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I'm David Greene in Des Moines, Iowa, where it is caucus day, finally, the first actual voting in this long presidential campaign and an important event in this state. Iowans will join their neighbors at churches, schools, community centers, to carry out a duty many Iowans take very seriously. We are at Smokey Row, a coffee shop in Des Moines. The early coffee crowd is already coming in. Actually, many people are here watching the show right in front of us, which is great. And I'm sitting next to Clay Masters, a very familiar voice in this part of the country. He's MORNING EDITION host on Iowa Public Radio. Clay, good morning to you.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So I love saying good morning to someone who understands what it's like to up really early. When does your alarm clock usually go off (laughter)?

MASTERS: My alarm clock usually goes off at 4 o'clock Central time. I can get there in time to get everything going for Iowa state news.

GREENE: Yeah, empathy, man, empathy. Well, you know, I'm actually really excited to listen to this part of the show with you, I mean, as someone who knows the state so well. I wanted to start with a voice. It's the voice of David Raak. And he's a businessman I met in western Iowa a few days ago. And he's really afraid of terrorism. And I asked him if he agrees with Donald Trump that Muslims should be barred from entering the country for a time, and here's what he said.

DAVID RAAK: I, for one, do not believe that every Muslim is a terrorist, you know. I'm not that irrational. However, when there seems to be a high incidence of that radicalism within a certain group, you tend to become a little gun shy. If all of a sudden everybody with blonde hair started shooting people, I think I'd get pretty leery of blonde-haired people.

GREENE: You know, that was a powerful voice I heard, Clay. And you know, one fact I didn't know about Iowa - it is actually home to a big Muslim community and one of the oldest mosques in the United States.

MASTERS: Right. It's - Iowa's criticism, a lot of times, from outsiders is that it's an overwhelmingly white population. And there's a lot of research here at the University of Northern Iowa that shows that the minority population is one of the fastest-growing populations in the state. You have so much of Iowa's that rural, very farming community, white - those populations are on the decline, whereas more minority populations are on the up.

GREENE: Oh, and that brings us to Cedar Rapids, where I really wanted to visit a community, especially given the climate this election season. I was interested in going to Cedar Rapids where this old mosque is. Some of the Muslim families in Iowa, you know, as you say, some are moving here, but some have been here since the late 1800s. And this old mosque gets rarely used now. This is a newer mosque, a mile or so away. It's the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids.

LENA IGRAM: Hi, Musa.

MUSA: Hi.

GREENE: There was a young women outside, Lena Igram. She had a white head covering on. She was born and raised in Cedar Rapids. She was with some children. The blue and white tower, or minaret, of the mosque was lit up by the sun above them.

IGRAM: I have two siblings out there - Hannah and Musa, yeah. They're playing in the snow (laughter). I had to stop and say hi before I went inside.

GREENE: Inside, Friday prayers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Arabic).

GREENE: Men - more than 100 of them were lined up and kneeling, side-by-side.

HASSAN SELIM: (Speaking Arabic).

GREENE: The imam leading the prayer is 28 years old, Hassan Selim.

HASSAN SELIM: We bear witness...

GREENE: He told the congregation, in these times, they should be careful when they're on a plane and it's time to pray.

HASSAN SELIM: You raise your hand and you start mumbling and using words in Arabic. People around you don't understand what you are saying. They hear you saying the word Allah. They freak out, and they get scared. So if you are on a flight, I advise you to make your duaa (speaking Arabic) in your heart.

GREENE: Afterwards, we sat down in the imam's office. Selim is originally from Egypt. He's a U.S. citizen now. He moved to the United States with his wife who's from Cedar Rapids.

HASSAN SELIM: My drawer is a bit of a mess.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPERS RUSTLING)

GREENE: It's full of letters from churches in Iowa expressing support at a moment when some are fearful of Muslims. Now as for what the imam told the men during prayer in the other room, he's given similar advice to women.

HASSAN SELIM: You know, we had women from the congregation here who came and asked - I'm traveling, and is it allowed for me to just take off my head scarf for the time I'm flying and then put it on again when I arrive to my destination? And people have real concerns. We said yeah, absolutely.

GREENE: You said it was OK to take it off.

HASSAN SELIM: Yeah, absolutely. It's their safety. It's their life.

GREENE: I told the imam that I'd interviewed a man in western Iowa who said if blonde people carried out mass shootings, he'd be scared of them, too. How do you respond to hearing something like that?

HASSAN SELIM: I mean, you know, if you look at the statistics, we have had more than 300 mass shootings in the last year. And except maybe for one or two, they were, you know, carried out by people who are not Muslims. So to make this claim, it's not a reasonable argument to make. But the fear itself that comes out - that causes this is something that is understood - the fear, which some of the politicians are using to just make these big claims that have no facts to support it.

GREENE: You're saying the fear is understood. Like, you could empathize with this in some way?

HASSAN SELIM: Yes. Yes. Yes. People are not very well-educated. People rely on the media to have information, which is different from what knowledge is. My role is to get out of my comfort zone to visit churches, schools, universities and tell people what my faith is about, who I am and then people start saying oh, OK. So you are just like a normal guy who has two daughters, and he cares about their future and their education. And, you know, you care about your paycheck and taxes and things like this. And then - only then, I feel that I have done my part, and it's just - it's so exhausting because you do this all the time. You know, it's so exhausting. Like, you come to a point where, like, you say I just want to live my life without having to explain myself. I just - every place I go - I go to a restaurant with my family, and everyone - or, like, become all of a sudden, alert, just because my wife has, like, a headscarf or that I call my child a Muslim name. And it makes my job difficult when I have to tell these people - volunteer in the public library and do good work. And then - but they're like - but people already look at us, like, as dangerous people, as foreigners, and I don't feel comfortable taking my family to the public library and having everyone just, you know, looking at as terrorists. But, yeah.

GREENE: But you feel like you walk around the streets in Cedar Rapids and there many people look at you as a terrorist?

HASSAN SELIM: Recently, yes. I mean, I've been here for four years. Only in the last two or three months did I start to feel uncomfortable.

GREENE: And what do you attribute that to?

HASSAN SELIM: I mean, I would like to just point at one person and say to this or that person. But it's a narrative, and everyone is speaking on this narrative. Everyone is, you know, using it for their political reasons. And I don't know who's benefiting from this. This intensity just doesn't give us a break for us to sit down and have a cup of tea and talk and have this...

GREENE: What does that tell us about our country right now?

HASSAN SELIM: I don't know. I'm sorry. I just - I don't know. It's confusing (laughter). It's very confusing. I don't know. It's - America is a great country. You don't need to make America great again. And this narrative that wants to make America great again, no. It wants to make America some place that is not welcoming, that's not safe. I have, you know, I have two little girls that I want them to grow up and just have a normal life, you know, just have a normal good life. I don't want them to be making statements about their faith or explaining to the people who they are or, like, fight a fight for - or struggle for survival. I just want them to have a normal life, you know.

GREENE: Hassan Selim is imam at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids. And Clay Masters, MORNING EDITION host on Iowa Public Radio, is still with me here. Clay, the imam used the word intensity, and I feel like that captures a lot of what we're hearing from voters on all sides in this caucus and campaign here.

MASTERS: Well, and it's really interesting to listen to him and what he has to say. When you think about 2012 and the loss of Mitt Romney in that general election, there was a lot of talk about expanding the base and being more inclusive and expanding the Republican Party. And really, throughout this year-long caucus campaigning, Donald Trump has dominated a lot of the headlines, and people like that he's not politically correct.

GREENE: Because people have a lot of fear and a lot of anger right now. And you listen to people, and it's really genuine and coming from a very real place, which seems to explain a lot of what we've seen.

MASTERS: Yeah. And the big thing that's happening in this election seems to be just - at least for the two top frontrunners for both the Republicans and the Democrats - is that it's this momentum versus organization. You're seeing the momentum of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side and the momentum of Donald Trump versus the organization of Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side and of Ted Cruz on the Republican side, and it's really who's going to have the most intense turnout on caucus night, which is tonight.

GREENE: All right. It is tonight. Clay Masters from Iowa Public Radio, I know you have to get back to your studios. Thanks for coming in.

MASTERS: Yeah. Thanks so much, David. Appreciate it.

GREENE: He was here live from a coffee shop in Des Moines on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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