Ahmad Salah came to Provo to do graduate studies at Brigham Young University in September of 2001. In hindsight he admits it may not have been the best timing.
As an Egyptian and Muslim in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 things weren’t as comfortable as they might have been otherwise. It even took a few months for Salah’s roommates to see he wasn’t a terrorist, but a guy just like them.
Salah was single, but engaged at the time. During a party a few months after school started, one of his roommates came up to him and said he was sorry for how he acted and realized that Ahmad was just the same as the rest of the roommates in the apartment.
Salah has lived, worked, and continues raising a family here in Utah County. He is also serving as the Imam for BYU Muslim students.
But in spite of his own progress, Salah is worried about the American Dream for him and his family, because he doesn't want it to become a nightmare lost to intolerance, fearmongering and prejudice. He hopes that through education and communication about the Muslim way of way that bridges can built instead of torn down.
Tough times and education
After living in Utah County for 15 years, it hasn’t been until the past few months that Salah and his family have experienced out-of-the-ordinary profiling issues.
“I’ve never had a problem,” Salah said. “Recently my wife was stopped in Costco by two members of the community — an older couple. The lady said to my wife ‘Go back to your country, you killed my son’. A while later the husband said he was sorry. ‘Our son was killed in Iraq.’”
Another incident occurred with his seventh-grade daughter. It was just after the Paris attack and before the San Bernardino shootings at the end of last year.
“She was called out in school that she was a terrorist by a classmate,” Salah said. “This situation is sad.”
Of course, there was the visit to the principal’s offices to discuss the matter and then the at-home concerns about going back to that school.
During that same time the family had plumbing problems at their home and Salah’s wife was worried about being home alone. With these types of incidents, Salah’s wife, who is veiled in public, has mentioned once or twice about taking the veil off.
Salah said the only way these kinds of things will stop is to help the community be educated on what is real and by way of caution, build bridges of trust within the local community.
The trust goes both ways he said. “We need to start eliminating the stereotypes.”
“If you (a white American) were to go to the Middle East, they would see you as an American politician. When I go home to Egypt, they say look what the politicians are doing. I try to explain these are not the same as the people walking down the streets of Provo.”
Tala’at Al-Shuqairat, a Muslim and local pulmonary doctor, has lived in Utah County for more than a decade. His children were born here.
“The community is very supportive. We try to be positive in the community,” Al-Shuqairat said. “There’s been small things, and there have been some challenges for the women (who are veiled) with people staring.”
Al-Shuqairat leads prayers at the Utah Valley Islamic Center, a small home in south central Orem. He said with all the talk in Washington and the politics there has been an increase in interest in the Utah Muslim community.
“I get phone calls all the time,” he said. “We are seeing people showing more support. People who judge Islam most likely don’t know Islam.”
With all the political talk on immigration, closing borders and the refugees, Al-Shuqairat said that his son, who was born in the U.S., is worried they will do to his family like they did to the Japanese in World War II.
He said it will be by educating, sometimes one-on-one, that people will change.
Al-Shuqairat said the Islamic Center is also open to students who want to come and see the prayers, which are always given in Arabic. Friday is the Muslim Sabbath and the Jumu’ah prayer is held midday on Friday. Muslims have five daily prayers.
The hope is that one day a new mosque will be built to hold the numbers wanting to attend prayer and other activities. The land has been purchased and designs are ready; they only wait on the finances to build the Orem facility.
Brian Birch, director of Religious studies at Utah Valley University, said that spending time together with peoples of other faith is invaluable and should be part of individuals' education.
“There’s just a heightened sensitivity because of the presidential race,” Birch said. “Relative to other parts of the country, our community works extra hard to be hospitable.”
Brigham Young University Muslim students have had access to their own prayer room in the Wilkinson Student Center for more than a decade. Lectures, classes and symposium have been held on numerous occasions to help educate the public on Islam.
Birch added that UVU has received national attention on how the university takes on interreligious understanding.
Another opportunity to learn about Islam will take place from noon to 2 p.m. on Feb. 1 at a free symposium in UVU's Classroom Building room 511. The symposium is titled, “Islam and Hope: Creating solidarity among people of Goodwill”. Bradley Cook, Provost of Southern Utah University, will be the keynote speaker. He received his doctorate degree in Islamic studies from Oxford University.
“There is no more important issue than interreligious understanding,” Birch said.
Birch noted that Utah is tied into the State Department for hosting international visitors. The Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy hosts guests all the time. Sometimes those hosting moments can be very educational and uncomfortable, according to Birch.
“Recently we had a group from Sudan, the day after Donald Trump announced his plan to ban immigration of Muslims,” Birch said.
“I’d like us to be exemplary to other cultures,” he added.
One way UVU has stepped up multi-religious and cultural awareness, particularly of Muslim students, is through its Reflection Center. According to Chaplain Linda Walton, the two-year-old center is packed all the time.
That wasn’t always the case. In fact, when Walton was first assigned the UVU chaplaincy there was no Reflection Center. Students came to her concerned that fellow classmates were holding their daily prayers in bathrooms, their cars, or just refraining from them.
At first they were able to find rooms for Muslim students to pray, but that was haphazard and changed from semester to semester. With the help of President Matthew Holland, the building of a religious meditation area moved forward.
Now the Reflection Center is open the same hours as the school. It features a 1,000-square-foot space that has three separate rooms, one of which is always held in reserve for silence, prayer and meditation.
“It gives them a space,” Walton said. “They are just one of 40 groups, including atheists, agnostics, Christians that use the center for meditation. The university has done a great job leveling the playing field and giving access. As Chaplain, I’m here to protect religious liberties.”
Involvement is not just for college students. Salah said everyone in the community needs to take an active role in learning about each other — all Muslims are not terrorists.
To help reach out locally, Salah said billboards have been placed on Interstate 15 that indicate 1.6 billion Muslims are against terrorism.
“I am a member of the community, I’m not a terrorist,” Salah said. “Our community is one cohesive piece of fabric made with many different threads.”
Birch, who is also on the board of the Parliament of World Religions said, “The main leadership in the Muslim world are as upset as any other about what is happening.”
Salah said part of the act of terrorism is to make people feel they need to segregate from each other. They are trying to keep Muslims away from other peoples and cultures as much as they are trying to eliminate and keep Christians away from them.
“The crazy guys are trying to separate camps into you and me, but we are we,” Salah said.
He said local Muslims must actively participate, as well and reach out to, neighbors and friends not as missionaries, but as members of the community to help educate about their beliefs and the Quran for instance.
“The Quran does not teach violence,” Salah said. “The Muslim leaders don’t do enough to educate our own.”
Salah understands the need to stop terrorism, and that killing will happen. But he also hopes that the bigger issues will be addressed.
“Killing just to kill is like cutting a branch off a very big tree,” Salah said. “The problem comes from the root. And at the root there needs to be education.”