The Mosque That Is as American as Apple Pie

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PHOTO: QUADVISION

Donald Trump won’t be visiting Cedar Rapids’s Mother Mosque on his upcoming trip to Iowa—but the historic house of worship, its imam, and its founders could teach him quite a bit.

The members of America’s oldest standing mosque shrugged on learning of Donald Trump’s call to bar all Muslims from our shores.

“We gave it some talk that he is desperate for votes,” Imam Taha Tawil of the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “That’s why we don’t take it seriously.”

Much the same view has been expressed by New Yorkers who have long known Trump. They suspect that he just says what he figures will get him ahead and that he is generally no more real than reality TV.

What the imam said next came from having long known America and the place his 81-year-old Midwestern mosque occupies in its history.

“He can talk what he wants, but the American values are still there,” Tawil said. “We don’t lose any sleep over it.”

Tawil’s long view goes back to the 1880s, when four brothers in their early teens became the first Muslims to arrive in Cedar Rapids. Moussa, Abbas, Yousef, and Ali Habhab had departed the village of Kfarhouna in what was then Greater Syria and landed at Ellis Island possessing little more than the sprit such as was making America great.

“They were 13, 14, 15, 16, they were very young,” reports Paul Habhab, grandson of Moussa, who was renamed Moses by an immigration officer. “They didn’t know much, they were for the most part illiterate, but they had a good work ethic. They knew where they came from and they knew what they wanted. They were looking for a better life.”

Coincidentally, they arrived in America around the same time as Trump’s paternal grandfather. Trump would later say in his book The Art of the Deal that his grandfather came from Sweden, when he in fact emigrated from Germany. The descendants of the Habhab brothers would remain unfailingly proud to be Syrian Muslims.

Like Trump’s grandfather, the Habhab brothers started out in New York, in their case likely settling in “Little Syria,” a small enclave of Muslims and Christians just down from where the World Trade Center would later rise. They may have worshipped in a room above a Rector Street barber shop that may have been America’s first mosque, but the building was also occupied by an official from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which the brothers had been seeking to escape. They went to work unloading coal cars for a nickel a ton.

“With a shovel, and he would do two cars a day, my grandfather,” reports Paul Habhab, noting Moussa had been just 14.

Christians from Kfarhouna had continued on to Iowa and sent back word that Cedar Rapids was a place of promise. The Habhab brothers followed them and went to work on farms that were largely owned by German immigrants.

“Eventually they saved enough to do their own thing,” Paul Habhab says.

Moussa and Abbas Habhab acquired a horse and a cart, and became peddlers.

“Go from farm to farm, they would just kind of trade whatever they could,” Paul Habhab says. “Go around and sell whatever they could—pots and pans, fruits and vegetables.”

They would sew empty cloth rice bags into shirts they then sold or bartered.

“We try to do our best to do what we can to bring peace and harmony to this land,” Tawil says. “We are happy to live in peace and harmony for 100 years.”

“Put buttons and stuff on them,” Paul Habhab says.

Hard times became even harder when the Great Depression hit in 1929, but the brothers kept on.

“Even during the Depression, they figured out a way to make it work and survive,” Paul Habhab says.

The brothers gained a reputation for generosity no matter how tough it got.

“Very well known for helping people, trying to do whatever he could for everyone,” Paul Habhab says of Moussa, then adding, “Not just my grandfather. They were all like that.”

And they were in Iowa to stay.

“They knew they weren’t going anywhere,” Paul Habhab says. “This was beautiful. This was home.”

But they did not want to forsake their heritage and their culture, which included their religion. The continuing trials of the Depression did not prevent them from joining together with fellow Muslims to build what was the first structure in America designed specifically to be a mosque. A mosque had been established in North Dakota in 1929, but that was subsequently torn down.

On Feb. 15, 1934, the Mother Mosque was officially opened. Two signs flanked the main entrance, announcing its dual purpose as a house of worship and a community center.

“Moslem Temple,” read one.

The other read, “Al-Nadi Al-Islami,” meaning “Islamic Club.”

Islam as practiced there was and is centered on true fundamentals such as elude the so-called fundamentalists.

“The basic core of be good, be decent, don’t lie, don’t steal,” Paul Habhab says.

By then the brothers were starting families of their own, having made matrimonial trips back to Kfarhouna and returning with their brides. Moussa, now called Moses, had eight children, six of whom survived to adolescence. The boys all served in the military.

Navy Ensign Oscar Habhab was killed when his plane went down in the South Pacific on April 1, 1945, and his remains were never recovered. Albert Lee Habhab landed at Normandy on D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, later becoming senior judge on the Iowa Court of Appeals. Paul Habhab’s father, also Paul, served in Korea and went on to open a bar and grill in Fort Dodge.

The Muslim community in Cedar Rapids continued to grow, to the point where the Mother Mosque was becoming too small. The mosque was sold to finance a new, larger Islamic Center on the other side of town. The Mother Mosque served for a time as a teen club, then as a shelter for Cambodian refugees, and it was occasionally rented out for church functions. The building then fell into disrepair.

In 1983, Taha Tawil arrived as a new imam at the Islamic Center. He was taken to see the Mother Mosque. He beheld history in near ruin.

“I was proud and sad at the same time,” Tawil recalls. “I said it should be preserved.”

He commenced a campaign that required all of his determination but promised a great reward.

“It was sweet work,” Tawil says.

Some of the neighbors grumbled about having a functioning mosque back in their midst, but Tawil just told himself they were entitled to their opinion.

“This is how America is,” Tawil says. “We can’t tell people what to do. We just moved on.”

The grumbling eventually ceased as Tawil’s group purchased the building in 1990 and commenced work the following year.

“People at the end understood,” Tawil says. “Everything falls into its place.”

On Feb. 15, 1992, the 58th anniversary of the original opening, the Mother Mosque was formally reopened. Various Iowa dignitaries came in out of the bitter winter cold. They sat visibly shivering, but the mosque was suffused with another kind of warmth.

“It was very nice, a grand opening,” Tawil says.

In 1995, the younger Paul Habhab, grandson of Moussa, was married in the restored Mother Mosque.

“You feel the presence of the old-timers and the struggles they had,” Paul Habhab says. “It was just amazing… It was like coming full circle.”

He and his wife had three children, the youngest born after the 9/11 attacks, when the towers fell just uptown from what had been Little Syria. Their names attest to his pride in his heritage as the grandson of the Syrian Muslim whose own name had been changed at Ellis Island. The daughters are Jameela and Raya. The son is Terek.

“It’s almost as if you should apologize for being Muslim in America and hide our identity,” says Paul Habhab, who is now 45 and happily working for UPS. “I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel ashamed of anything. I feel anger that certain individuals hijacked my religion.”

The Islam embraced by him and his family is not the Islam in whose name the Islamic terrorists kill.

“I can look back at my heritage and say that is not the people who we are, that is not what my family is, that is not what we believe,” he says.

Any leader who is truly interested in America’s greatness would embrace the Habhabs and the Mother Mosque, not seek to whip up fear of all Muslims with the aim of converting paranoia into poll numbers.

“It’s no different than any other politician,” Paul Habhab says of Trump. “That’s just his angle. They’re all the same. They want votes.”

Paul Habhab doubts that Trump will benefit in the long run.

“Fear-mongering, it only goes so far,” he says. “At a certain point, it’ll have no value. It’ll have very little appeal.”

Meanwhile, many Muslims in Cedar Rapids have continued to worship at the larger Islamic Center, especially during holidays. The Mother Mosque has undertaken an added task as a center to educate non-Muslims about Islam.

“For government, for FBI,” Tawil says. “We go to them, they come to us.”

He is proud to have become a police chaplain. He is even prouder that the mosque is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

“To be American, to have a monument, it is a prestige,” Tawil says. “You do things right, things go right.”

He is sad to report that the 2008 flood that hit the city destroyed diaries and other historical artifacts kept in the mosque’s basement.

“Flood does not discriminate between Christians, Muslims, Jews, anybody,” Tawil says.

But the building itself survives. And Tawil is speaking in more than a literal sense when he says, “We have a very good, solid foundation.”

At the heart of it is the story of the Mother Mosque. Tawil can appraise the present state of things with a single word.

“Wonderful,” he says.

On Friday, Trump will be making a campaign appearance at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. Tawil will be at the Mother Mosque, built by Muslim immigrants who achieved renown not for what they amassed for themselves but for what they gave to people in need.

The mission of their mosque continues and is sure to prevail because, as the imam observes, the American values are still there.

“We try to do our best to do what we can to bring peace and harmony to this land,” Tawil says. “We are happy to live in peace and harmony for 100 years.”

The imam adds, “We are hoping for another 2,000.”

This article originally appeared on The Daily Beast.

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