The Man Trying to Turn Mosques Into Places of Sanctuary
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the climate for Muslims in America is changing.
On the night before our first scheduled interview, Imam Omar Suleiman didn’t sleep: He was too busy organizing the protest at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Still, he wasn’t the one to cancel; I suggested we wait till the next day. We meet in the evening in his high-ceilinged home, in between his meeting with immigration attorneys and a prayer service.
Suleiman’s always been busy, holding leadership roles in projects that bridge humanitarianism, religion and research — now, he’s founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, leads the multi-faith alliance Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square and teaches Islamic studies at Southern Methodist University. His latest endeavor: attempting to persuade hundreds of mosques across America to announce themselves as sanctuaries. If successful, the movement will be a very public display of the Muslim community’s race- and religion-blind support of those in need, and Suleiman is ready to work to make it happen. “America is in a reconstruction era,” the New Orleans native says in his deep, melodic voice, “and we need to make sure that we reconstruct it for the better.”
“Sanctuary cities” — or cities that choose not to assist federal immigration authorities in deportation efforts — has become a household term since November. But Suleiman wants to go further: He hopes mosques will welcome immigrants and refugees of all faiths into their oft-attacked places of worship, providing temporary living spaces, food and support. He expects that each mosque will engage in the sanctuary movement in the way that works best for their community. If other faith organizations are a model, we might see Muslim leaders assisting immigrants seeking legal counsel and taking advantage of authorities’ willingness to treat religious institutions with a softer hand than other spaces.
Many synagogues have welcomed Syrian refugees over the past few months. One internet meme read “Anne Frank today is a Syrian girl” — and NPR reported that six of the nine major refugee resettlement groups in America are faith-based. According to Religion News Service, the number of sanctuary churches has doubled since Election Day, reaching 800. Christian religious sanctuary dates back to medieval periods, when those fleeing the law sought protection in the church. And Suleiman is eager to point out that Islam claims this history as well: “‘Sanctuary’ is as Islamic a concept as it is Judeo-Christian,” he explains. “Four of the top five prophets in Islam … were refugees, and were welcomed by another community.” He notes, “God says, ‘We have honored the child of Adam.’ That means that every human being is honored and dignified in the sight of God.” (The Quran, Al-Isra 17.70).
Last Monday, before a crowd of an estimated 1,000 protesters outside the Dallas Fort Worth airport, Suleiman asked the crowd, “How many of your mosques, churches and synagogues will open up as sanctuaries?” Affirmative cheers responded. Suleiman feels confident that tens, if not hundreds, of mosques will declare their spaces as sanctuaries. Imam Ismaeel Chartier, leader of the first and only mosque to declare itself as a sanctuary in America, told me in a phone interview that 97 percent of his Cincinnati congregation agreed to the move.
“There are real dangers for Muslims who declare themselves as sanctuaries in times like these.”
This could be a dangerous move, particularly if mosques do cross the line into murky legal territory. Chartier declares that illegal immigrants “wouldn’t be any safer in our mosques than they would be in their homes” — he believes the statement of multi-faith support may do more good than the provision of sanctuary. But any legal misstep could endanger the Muslim community’s relationship with law enforcement — not to mention the risk of attacks.
In the last month in Texas alone, two mosques have burned down, and still more have been surrounded by armed protesters, according to news reports. Chartier’s own Clifton Mosque was bombed about a decade ago; local authorities believed the Klan was responsible. No one was injured. Since announcing sanctuary, Chartier says the mosque has received eight threats, and he has received over 30 personally. “There are real dangers for Muslims who declare themselves as sanctuaries in times like these,” Grace Yukich, who’s written about American Muslims involved in sanctuary movements and currently focuses on discrimination against Arab-American Muslims, writes in an email. When fellow Muslims express fears about declaring their spaces as sanctuaries or publicly supporting the sanctuary movement, he tells them, “they’re threatening all of us anyway”
It was Islam’s humanitarianism that ended Suleiman’s preteen agnostic phase. His parents were “religious but open-minded,” encouraging him to be friends with people of other faiths. When he was 12, he began exploring other religions. After attending churches and synagogues and reading all he could for two years, he concluded, “It’s people that make religion ugly — for irreligious motives.” He believes in Mohammed, he says, but sees no barrier between faith and tolerance. “I believe Islam is the truth,” he says, “but I also believe that mercy should be universal.”
Despite his horror at the Trump administration, Suleiman is not one to pour unequivocal praise on Barack Obama. He appreciated the 44th president’s rhetoric, “but his policies did not match up,” he says, adding that “this was a brutal eight years for immigrants.” Throughout our conversation, I’ve noticed the immense care he gives each word, but he’s not afraid to speak boldly. “We’re witnessing the dying breaths of white supremacy,” he says. If he could tell Trump one thing, it would be “we are not afraid of you — and we are resilient.”