CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa–Not far from the banks of the Cedar River and the concrete silos of the Quaker Oats plant, in a working class neighborhood adorned with Christmas lights and American flags, sits the oldest mosque in North America. Founded in 1934, and admitted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996, it’s not what you think of when you think of a mosque. There is no lofty minaret, no balcony for the muezzin to call the faithful to prayer. There is, however, a place of worship that most resembles a one-room schoolhouse–a single-story, white clapboard box with plain black shutters. If it weren’t for the crescent-topped green vinyl dome and the canopy above the entrance bearing the words “The Mother Mosque of America: Islamic Cultural & Heritage Center,” one might easily mistake it for a modest, if not meager, Pentecostal church, which indeed it was for a brief stint in its history before being abandoned altogether….
“We’ve been here for four and now five generations,” says Imam Tawil, pointing to a panoramic black-and-white photo of dozens of early settlers; the picture dates to 1936 and shows an imam and priest, both of Middle Eastern descent, proudly shaking hands in the center. “We’re as old as the oak trees in Iowa,” he continues. “We’re part of the fabric of this great state. We’re Americans with dreams and aspirations.” Many of the earliest Muslim settlers came to Cedar Rapids in the late 19th century from what is now Lebanon to work the farmland and raise crops of their own. As the community grew, it needed a permanent place to worship. Despite the hard times of the Great Depression, the local Muslim community pooled its resources and the “Mother Mosque” was dedicated on June 16, 1934. Sixteen young men from the Muslim community here served their country in World War II; two of those men never made it home. Since then, Muslim-Americans from eastern Iowa have served their country in nearly every major military conflict. “At least 20 members of the community are currently enlisted in the military,” says Imam Tawil. “Several are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq right now.” Cedar Rapids is now home to Muslims from some 30 countries, including Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq. After the 1991 Gulf War, dozens of Iraqi families–mainly Shiites who rose up against Saddam–found refuge here. Today, of the 700 Muslim families who call eastern Iowa home, more than 50 are from Iraq. “Nearly all of these refugees are striving to become U.S. citizens,” says Imam Tawil, who emigrated from Jerusalem in 1983 and became a U.S. citizen in 1990. A Palestinian by birth, he says, “I have never had citizenship anywhere else but America. Every time I vote I feel so proud because I didn’t have this right in my home country.” Around the same time that he became a U.S. citizen, Imam Tawil set out to renovate and restore the Mother Mosque. The building, which had gone vacant after housing a Pentecostal church and a teen center, was purchased in 1990; renovations began in 1991 and a grand opening was held in February 1992. The mosque serves mainly as a cultural and historical center since a modern Islamic Center was completed in 1971.