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Anxiety Over New York Islamic Center Felt In Fargo

Muslim men bow before joining others sitting on the floor of the Islamic Center in Fargo, N.D., during a Friday afternoon sermon. Local Muslim leaders hope to expand the mosque to meet the needs of a growing community.
Meg Luther Lindholm for NPR
Muslim men bow before joining others sitting on the floor of the Islamic Center in Fargo, N.D., during a Friday afternoon sermon. Local Muslim leaders hope to expand the mosque to meet the needs of a growing community.

While most Muslims in Fargo, N.D., say they feel accepted within the wider community, many are watching protests over the proposed Islamic cultural center near New York City's Ground Zero closely, particularly as they plan to expand their own mosque.

Fargo's Muslim population swelled in the 1990s after refugees arrived from war-torn countries including Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq. Since then, the community of approximately 3,000 Muslims has expanded to include people from Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Sudan and the Ivory Coast.

Relations between Fargo's Muslims and the larger Christian community have been good. Jobs and housing are plentiful, and Muslims say they value the safety and friendliness of this area.

Gatherings at the mosque are lively affairs. Children's voices are heard over the call to prayer, and women kneel toe-to-toe in a room that seems to grow smaller as the community expands.

The community [has] to see our mosque as their church. The way they go to their church, we go to our mosque.

The long-term plan is to move into a bigger mosque and create a community center somewhat like the one proposed in New York City.

But Ahmer Qarni, a leader among local Muslims and a physician who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan, worries that the anger sparked by that proposed center could reverberate all the way to Fargo.

"I think I feel more anger, more hostility against building of the mosque and mosque expansions in general. So obviously when you hear about small communities being targeted, you know, who knows? You could be next," Qarni says.

Siham Amedy and her family fled Iraq and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein in the mid-1990s. She doesn't hide her Muslim identity, but she does feel a growing sense of anxiety.

"I'm afraid that Muslims will be targeted -- innocent people, kids at school, people in their businesses … I'm afraid of it escalating now," Amedy says.

Qarni is also worried, attributing the anxiety to a lack of political backing. He says he has not seen the same level of support from leaders in the wider community as he did after the Sept. 11 attacks.

There seems to be a sense of vulnerability on a personal level, too. Mona Ibrahim, a psychology professor at Concordia College, left Egypt for the more tolerant atmosphere she says she found in the U.S. But she now fears her own religious practices may be affected.

"Sometimes we go to the park and to our barbecues … and we pray right there in the park. … Someone could say, 'Oh, that's so offensive!' or 'My son is in the Army,' or 'We lost a son' or something and 'We don't like … to see Muslims' ... It just … opens the door to all sorts of bigoted behaviors," Ibrahim says.

The anxiety aside, many Fargo Muslims hope to eventually open a new mosque. But local leader Qarni says they will not take community support for granted.

"We will invite non-Muslims to … discussions if they have any objections and make sure that we don't feed on fear, because fear is your worst enemy. The community [has] to see our mosque as their church. The way they go to their church, we go to our mosque," Qarni says.

For now, the Muslim community in Fargo is largely staying out of the fray over the proposed Islamic center in New York City in an effort to preserve good relations with the non-Muslim community in Fargo. They hope that when the time comes to expand, they will have the support they need and want.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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