Growing up in Milwaukee as a young girl, I was often driven past the Islamic Center of Milwaukee’s main center on 13th Street and Layton Avenue. I remember at 5 years old, asking my mom about the beautiful building, which was embellished with gold and topped with a crescent moon: “Who lives in that castle?”
Interestingly enough, the Salam School — which runs its grade school in the building — was founded the year I was born in 1992. This was the first full-time Islamic School in Milwaukee.
I’m ashamed to say that despite being mesmerized by the ISM for years, it took me nearly 25 years to actually step foot in a mosque and learn more about the Muslim faith.
So, this past week, Farah Akbar Ahmed, Menomonee Falls resident and member of the Brookfield mosque, Masjid Al-Noor, invited me in for a tour.
This mosque is the closest in proximity to Muslims who live in Menomonee Falls and Sussex; Ahmed cited around 50 members come from those areas, but Muslims from all over southeastern Wisconsin come for special events.
The night before I went on the tour, I was anxious. I was frantically Googling about the dress code. Was I supposed to cover my hair? Could I wear makeup? How should I dress? I was terrified that I may offend someone, somehow.
While I think the questions were valid, they revealed how little I knew. I think my ignorance about the Muslim faith remains widely reflected across many sectors in this country.
I was amazed to find there were few differences inside the mosque than in a church. I was asked to take my shoes off before entering the prayer hall, revealing my goofy polka-dotted fuzzy socks, but that was pretty much the only change in my dress that was different than how I would have dressed for church.
“It’s just like any other church; we come here, we pray, we come with peace and we do our thing just like you would at your church,” Ahmed said. “We have a book club, we have lectures and sermons; the same type of things. We pray a little bit differently, we have a certain dress code, but in general, we’re all the same; we’re all Americans.”
From our 45-minute tour, the biggest difference I learned wasn't in religious practice, it was in security.
You won’t find many churches that require a security committee, but Ahmed is one of the members of her mosque’s.
“We’re looking into hiring an off-duty guard,” Ahmed said. “Right now, we have parents who watch the door, just to have that extra precautionary measure. It’s our job since we run a Sunday school to take that precautionary measure.”
The Sunday morning after the shooting at the Embassy Suites hotel — not far from the mosque — parents were calling the mosque administration with concerns that the shooter might come there, as the suspect had not been apprehended at the time.
While the shooting was more of a rare occurrence for the area, Ahmed said members remain concerned with the current political atmosphere.
“I have a lot of concerns,” Ahmed said. “Our basic right of religion is being questioned; this is not the America I know. My kids were born here. They’re Americans; we are tax-paying, law-abiding, contributing members of society. We should not be held to a different standard than someone who is non-Muslim. Seeing what the courts have decided and what has happened has reaffirmed my faith in America."
Ahmed’s children have not had issues with bullying in school, but other members of the mosque have not been as fortunate; several have experienced remarks from peers in school to “leave the country.”
Despite some issues students experience in school, Ahmed said the mosque has had an outpouring of support from the community.
When the mosque held its open house at the end of January, 400 people attended, and tours are held every week for anyone who is interested in learning more about the mosque and its members.
“For the most part, I get wonderful vibes from people, but that’s the thing, they have to take the first steps and come here,” Ahmed said. “There are people I know personally that I’ve been telling to come because we’ve had some political discussions. It’s really hard when it’s directly affecting you and your family. There have been so many people that have walked through here that have said, ‘oh my gosh, I didn’t know this, I’m so happy we came.’"
Ahmed is encouraged that so many people have come to the mosque and learned more, but there is more work to be done to change the perception of Muslims in general, she said.
“The general stereotypes that are out there needs to be cleared; I’m glad people are opening their hearts and taking that step in coming and just learning about it," Ahmed said.
For more information on Masjid Al-Noor, visit ismwest.org.