CO: IDENTITY SEARCH: TO BE MUSLIM IN AMERICA
The food pantry occupies a storefront between a beauty salon and auto
shop, a nondescript location off East Colfax Avenue that gives no
indication the people volunteering inside symbolize a faith community
Shirley Anderson doesn't know who is helping her, doesn't notice the
framed Arabic calligraphy or the headscarf worn by one woman. She
certainly wouldn't know that the name of the pantry, Ansar, is taken
from an Arabic term for "helper."
Anderson, 53, is focused on getting groceries to her Section 8
apartment and disabled husband.
What comes to mind when she thinks of Muslims?
"Suicide bombers in the name of Allah," she said. "As far as I can
tell, they are not very nice people."
Mike Czeponis, 27, of Aurora converted to Islam in 2005 after
previously embracing magic and spirits. Now he teaches his son, 8,
from the Koran. (The Denver Post / Cyrus McCrimmon)
A few minutes later, she is going over a menu with Dr. Dilsher Nawaz,
an Aurora cardiologist with a big laugh and a salt-and-pepper beard.
Then she is out the door with a box filled with Froot Loops, tomato
sauce, carrot cake and canned pears.
"These people, they are Islamic?" Anderson said. "It makes me think
that not all of them are the same. You run into someone, it can open
your heart and mind."
As Colorado's Muslim community grows and matures in a post-Sept. 11
world, scenes like this are becoming more commonplace. A new
generation of Muslims with feet firmly in the U.S. is pushing greater
engagement with the wider community through service projects and
Below the surface of such gestures, Muslims in Denver and across the
country are in the midst of an identity struggle with profound
That debate - which centers on issues ranging from the role of women
to coping with assimilation - is one in which "progressive" and
"conservative" are loaded terms and a scarf worn on the head is a
Whereas the old guard of U.S. Muslims dwelled on events in the Middle
East, the next generation is more interested in understanding
Taj Ashaheed works the Ansar food pantry on Colfax Avenue, run by
Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism. (The Denver Post / Karl Gehring)
American culture, said University of Denver religious studies
professor Liyakat Takim.
"There is tension between conservative and more liberal or reform-
minded Muslims focused mostly on openness to America," he said. "The
differences are healthy. It shows the community is thinking and evolving.
"Muslims," he said, "are going through a process of transition from
being Muslims in America to being American Muslims."
Reaching beyond mosques
Open since October, the Ansar pantry is a joint effort of faith-based
social service agency Metro CareRing and Muslims Intent on Learning
With studies estimating just one out of three U.S. Muslims are
Hozifa Basha, 12, holds an American flag while volunteers from the
Colorado Muslim Society work to clear snow from Birch Street in
Denver. (The Denver Post / RJ Sangosti)
mosques, independent groups like MILA are reaching out to Muslims wary
of mosque structure.
Such organizations also tend to be more progressive.
At the Colorado Muslim Society mosque, women wear the hijab - or
headscarf - and pray in a balcony while the men occupy the main hall.
At MILA meetings, men and women sit next to one another, and many
women don't cover their hair, although some do.
Most Muslims believe women must cover their heads and bodies to show
modesty and submit to God.
Along with hosting a Muslim comedian and a speaker who later became
the first female president of the Islamic Society of North America,
MILA has worked with a Christian rescue mission and Habitat for Humanity.
"There has always been culture clashes in the Islamic community," said
Taj Ashaheed, 37, an African- American who converted to Islam while in
prison for robbery. "People didn't really like MILA; it was sort of
controversial. But I think people are seeing now we are active Muslims
actually doing things."
Progressive-minded Muslims are a minority, however. Nawaz, the
cardiologist, said a "significant minority is taking an active role to
change the status quo."
Other MILA projects include a health clinic and women's shelter.
But getting Muslims interested in charitable work in Denver hasn't
been easy, said Abbas Kazmi, 40, a driving force behind the Ansar project.
Because of a volunteer shortage, the food pantry is only open for
three hours on Saturdays.
"A lot of people's first reaction was, 'Who needs help in America?
Everyone has food, a job. Why should we contribute here when there are
all these problems elsewhere?"' Kazmi said.
Like the majority of U.S. Muslims, Kazmi is well-educated and
well-off. A Pakistani who has lived half his life in America, he works
as an electrical engineer at a Boulder aerospace company. He drives an
Kazmi said he is more accepting because of his American experience.
"Everyone has a point of view, and everyone has a different set of
beliefs, and we need to respect that," he said. "I have stopped
thinking in black and white. No one can say, 'I am absolutely right or
"A lot of people would disagree with me on that."
Welcoming different opinions
Mohammad Noorzai is the first full-time paid president of the Colorado
The oldest mosque in the Rocky Mountain West, the complex on South
Parker Road is the region's most visible symbol of Islam with its
minaret, crescent-topped dome and jammed parking lot for Friday prayer.
Noorzai has a difficult task: holding together a congregation of
immigrants and converts, young and old, progressives and conservatives.
His reforms are both inward- and outward-focused.
He attends neighborhood association meetings and hands out his
cellphone number. An open house drew 150 non-Muslims. Youths picked up
trash along Parker Road and shoveled elderly neighbors' sidewalks.
"For a long time, because we were the minority here, Muslims were
thinking of their own community," said Noorzai, hired in August. "We
need to go outside that box."
The mosque has experienced growing pains. Two years ago, four people
with MILA ties won seats on the shura, or board. One person moved, one
resigned because of illness, another resigned citing politics on the
board and the last followed suit, Noorzai said.
This weekend, the mosque's constitution and bylaws could be revisited
at an annual membership meeting - and women's roles also may be discussed.
Noorzai said he favors seeking input from the mosque's recently
revived women's committee.
"I want to empower women, not to have a symbol - you put a woman in
charge here or there, and all of a sudden you're pro-woman," he said.
On the festival ending the holy month of Ramadan, Noorzai planned to
use a multipurpose room on the main floor as overflow prayer space for
men. But when women protested, he agreed to make space for them.
"The women are the neck and the men are the head," said Aminah
Washington, who leads the women's committee. "Without the neck, the
head would just be rolling down the street."
Ammar Amonette, the mosque's imam, or spiritual leader, is well-
positioned to critique Islam in America: He is a white U.S.-born
convert who studied in Saudi Arabia, where strict interpretations of
He said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, comfortably
assimilated Muslims who were "not very serious about their religion"
were frightened and decided Islam was "not progressive enough to deal
with this new reality." That misguided attitude, he said, is grounded
in a lack of education and understanding of Islam.
"If each person wants to remake Islam in their own image, we won't
have Islam," Amonette said. "We'll have a billion different religions."
Those views resonate with many Muslims, including converts taking to
the religion with zeal. Consider Mike Czeponis, 27, a seeker who found
in Islam piousness and universality.
A Muslim since 2005, Czeponis wraps a scarf over his head. He grew a
beard. His black robe, which he is careful to keep from brushing the
floor, bespeaks modesty.
Beneath those robes, Czeponis is covered in tattoos that recall a
previous devotion to magic and spirits: A demon's head and wings on
his right arm. A Wiccan symbol between thumb and index finger. A
Now, he teaches his 8-year-old son the Koran, or Muslim holy book,
before letting him play video games. He harbors suspicions about
groups such as MILA. "Some sisters are in skirts," he said. "Their
hair is all down. There is something wrong, if you can go to
gatherings and don't have to act Islam."
Many converts and U.S.-born children of immigrants are defying the
conventional wisdom that younger generations will urge progressive
reform, said Asra Nomani, author of "Standing Alone: One Woman's
Struggle for the Soul of Islam."
"In pushing for women's rights, I was shocked some of my greatest
adversaries were American-born Muslims who feel they have to prove to
their immigrant brethren they hadn't lost faith," she said. "We go
backwards because we end up falling back on the lowest common
denominator of Islamic interpretation."
Strengthening the foundation
On a recent Friday night after prayer, 18 teenage boys in jeans and
ball caps arranged themselves on the carpet of the Islamic center's
This was one of Noorzai's innovations: a reinvigorated youth group
grooming future leaders and reinforcing Islamic teaching amid
assimilation pressures. The brothers meet on Friday nights, the
sisters on Saturday.
Leading the boys' meeting was ShemsAdeen Ben-Masaud, 25, an account
manager for Sprint.
The son of a Libyan father and an American-born Caucasian mother,
Ben-Masaud recites what he calls his daily "checks."
Did I pray at the mosque at least once a day? Did I pray on time? Did
I read the Koran?
In younger years he turned down prom invitations because he was taught
Islam forbids dating and contact with the opposite sex.
"After 9/11 and other events, we are asked what comes first, being an
American or being Muslim," Ben- Masaud said. "For me, there's no
question. I'm a Muslim first. It's the fact that I am a Muslim that I
base my own life on, not being American."
Ben-Masaud leads an hour-long discussion about the importance of
submission to God: Lower your gaze and don't stare at people. Return
greetings with a similar or better greeting.
The group has fun too. Members take tubing trips in the mountains and
joined an Aurora recreational basketball league. Their two teams
aren't winning much. On Saturday, the boys and girls will sponsor an
"Interfaith Meet-Greet-n' Eat" at the mosque.
One moment in the class underscored that work remains in interfaith
The subject was Islam's understanding of death. The speaker,
25-year-old Tarik Solomon, claimed present-day Jews don't believe in
life after death.
That, he said, helps explain why Jews make it their life's purpose "to
make as much money as they can and conquer as many countries as they can."
Word soon got back to Noorzai, who was working late at the mosque.
He took Solomon aside and explained that, in fact, the afterlife is
part of Judaism. He called Solomon's comments unfair stereotypes not
unlike the kind endured by Muslims.
"We want to make sure our youth don't think that way," Noorzai
explained. "We want to teach them something that is correct and
The next week, Noorzai asked Amonette, the imam, to tell the boys that
what they had been taught about Jews was wrong.
Content in the middle
At the end of the youth meeting, pizza is served. Talk turns to what
Islam in America will look like as the community grows. Ben-Masaud is
told that some Muslims doubt the motivations of groups such as MILA.
His very American retort: "Whatever."
Ben-Masaud seeks a sort of middle ground. He tries not to shake hands
with women, but he won't make a fuss if a woman wears a T-shirt to a
picnic held by a Muslim group.
"Not everyone is a mosque person," he said. "They view it as old
school. Or they don't like the administration ... I'm conservative.
But I'm not going to say you're kafir" - or a nonbeliever - "just
because you don't believe the same thing."
The basketball teams may be losing, but the neighborhood sidewalks are
clear of snow, people have the mobile number of the mosque president,
and a woman who once viewed Muslims as suicide bombers has food to eat.
Staff writer Eric Gorski can be reached at 303-954-1698 or
egorski @ denverpost.com.
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