A few days ago, I attended my first Islamic prayer service.
As someone who grew up Christian, the Idris Mosque in Northgate was not a place I’d anticipated spending my Sunday afternoon. As I approached the main entrance, I thought about the recent arson attack against a Bellevue mosque and last year’s vandalism at a Redmond mosque. I wondered if the worshipers inside worried about their safety, considering the rise in hate crimes since the election.
But Idris mosque-goers attend service without fear, said Hashim Farajalla, a board member at the Idris mosque.
“We haven’t received a single negative phone call since November 8th,” Farajalla said. “Nothing but an outpouring of support from the community.”
But Farajalla prefers to focus on the positive. He gestures to the prayer hall behind him, where vases of flowers lined the tops of bookshelves, letters lay in heaps on the floor, and posters leaned against the walls, all expressing encouragement and support from the Seattle community.
Farajalla, an engineer by trade, attributes this support to the mosque’s open-door policy, which he instituted as his first project as a board-member in the mid-90’s. He began reaching out to neighbors, synagogues, schools, and other places of worship to encourage them to come visit the mosque.
The mosque even opened its doors to Mayor Ed Murray on Tuesday for him to deliver the annual State of the City address.
The Idris Mosque was established in 1981 as a non-profit religious organization and was the first mosque in Seattle. People have repeatedly reciprocated the Idris mosque’s policies of transparency by supporting it in times of trouble. In 2001, members of the Seattle community encircled the mosque to protect it from post-9-11 threats. Today, their posters and flowers show the same support in light of the Trump administration’s Islamophobic rhetoric.
The mosque’s open-door policy gives community members a sense of belonging, Farajalla said.
“The U.S. is here,” Farajalla said. “I have Russian Muslims, I have Korean Muslims, I have Japanese Muslims, you name it, all of them are here.”
As I watch the afternoon’s attendees line up for prayer, his words manifest in front of me. Folks from all of backgrounds line up together, feet pressed against each other’s. It’s reminiscent of any church service I’ve ever attended — a few late-comers shuffle in after prayer begins, some kids giggle in hushed-tones as they take their place at the end of the line. One guy’s phone goes off and he sheepishly reaches in his pocket to silence it.
One man amongst the twenty-five or so present that afternoon, Aaron Cayko, says the mosque’s open-door policy is the reason he began attending. Five years ago, as he was biking down Northgate Way, the mosque caught Cayko’s eye.
“I was like, is that a mosque? In Northgate?” Cayko said. While stopped at the light, he asked a kid playing near the sidewalk, and they confirmed the building was indeed a mosque. Then an older man invited Cayko inside to check it out. He accepted, and left that day having reverted to Islam.
“In Islam, we believe everybody is born Muslim although some people may deny it or choose to leave it,” said Cayko, after gently correcting me when I use the term “convert.”
Cayko is just one story in what Farajalla claims is the most diverse mosque in the region.
“People have no idea that faith has nothing to do with a country, nothing to do with a group of people,” Farajalla said. “There is no majority here.”
Farajalla said he believes interfaith relations are a crucial component of a sanctuary city like Seattle, because they help different groups of people understand and relate to one another.
“The whole idea of interfaith is for the people to understand each other,” said Farajalla, “to reach out and tell people what Islam says about Jesus, or about Moses, or what Islam actually says about women.”
The mosque’s Imam (the person who leads prayers), Mahmoud Aboueisha said the open-door policy has helped integrate the Muslim community into the broader Seattle community. “The best example of this is that you are sitting with us right now,” said Aboueisha.
I also talked to Michelle Briscoe, who’s lived in the neighborhood since 2003 but decided to visit the mosque with another neighbor last Saturday to show their support. Briscoe said the neighborhood has a universally positive image of the mosque.
“It would be hard to find someone who is negative about it,” said Briscoe. “If they felt that way, it would be hard to get them to admit it.”
Cayko said that, in a way, the recent political climate has been beneficial because the media attention has made people wonder about Islam.
That was certainly true in my case. Curiosity drove me to visit the Idris mosque, as well as a desire to reconcile the misconceptions that caused almost half of American voters to support Trump’s proposed ban of immigration from some Muslim countries.
When I arrived, I expected to find a community fearful of the hatred amassing against them in their own country. Instead, I found people passionate about their faith, forgiving of others’ ignorance, and blanketed with support from their neighbors.
“As we know, a lot of information gets distorted,” said Cayko. “You have to piece through it – the truths and the falsehoods. But if you dig a little bit, the truth is there.”