A visit to the Islamic Center reveals a place of peace

Weston Hall Guest commentary

The Syrian refugee crisis has been called one of the worst refugee catastrophes in recent history. More than 4 million people have been displaced, most fleeing their native lands because of civil war and unrest instigated by the celebrated Arab Spring.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said on C-SPAN Dec. 7 that he was in favor of a “total and complete” shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.

President Barrack Obama promised to accept 10,000 refugees, but those efforts were thwarted by the House of Representatives in November. U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-NC, wrote in response to an inquiry, “Currently, there is no procedure for private American citizens to sponsor the screening, authorization, or resettlement of refugees within the United States.”

Most of the refugees have one thing in common - they are mostly Muslim. The United States’ stance on Iraqi and Syrian refugees is a classic case of Islamophobia. It seems to be one of the last acceptable forms of racism left.

Franklin Graham’s Facebook page declares, ”We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled.” He is also quoted as saying on a Fox News program, Islam is “wicked” and “evil.”

I wanted to visit a mosque to find out if there were any merit to Graham’s claim, so I visited the Islamic Center of Asheville on a Friday afternoon. It is a mosque situated in a very quiet neighborhood in East Asheville. Upon my arrival the people were starting to congregate outside of the mosque. There are hugs and handshakes along with lots of smiles.

The Imam, Mohamed Taha, called the faithful to prayer. I did not observe any backpacks packed with explosives, nor was anyone carrying an assault rifle. I did not pass any possible explosives on my drive down the lone road to the mosque. These seemed to be people of peace. “The very meaning of Islam is ‘peace,’” Khalid Bashire, president of the Islamic center, said.

The mosque was established in 1987 in a rented building in downtown Asheville before it moved to its present location in 2003. It is the only mosque in Western North Carolina, drawing people from all over the region. It attracts a vast array of people from all over the world representing many different nationalities. Abdul Hafeez Kalam, a long-time Asheville resident, observed, “We are Americans and proud to be Americans. Some are fourth- and fifth-generation Americans, while others have recently immigrated.”

After individual prayers and a group prayer given by the Imam, he started his sermon. It was not a sermon on taking over America or killing infidels but was of doing good deeds and forgiving others along the way. After the Imam spoke, the service closed with another group prayer followed by lots of hugs, handshakes and greetings as many left to go about their day.

I sat down with the Imam and couple of other men to discuss how they felt about the current political environment and disparaging comments uttered by some high-profile political figures and evangelists.

When I read quotes from Donald Trump, the men did not seem bothered. Yusuf Ben, one of the founders of the mosque, said, “You have to know it is a minority of Americans that believe that way. We were more concerned about his comments on Mexican immigrants calling them ‘rapists.’”

I also asked the group about the prison in Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba and the fact that it has housed only Muslim men and, in one case, a young boy. However, they did not know much about it, so we moved on to other topics. Admittedly, I expected a much different response. I could not imagine how upset I would be if a country imprisoned only American Christians without a trial.

We sat and talked for hours and even broke for a nice lunch. We covered many topics, them treating me as if I were an old friend and instantly somehow part of the group.

It was a very nice and comforting feeling.

I did not feel happy after I left the mosque. But I felt guilty.

It was guilt from not speaking out and letting crass racist comments go unchecked ... guilt manifested from decades of allowing Muslims to be incarcerated without a trial, long after the war is over.

How could I allow a United States president do away with the Geneva Convention and allow government officials to commit sanctioned torture?

How can I sit by and allow evangelists and politicians to turn their backs on women and children fleeing persecution, especially when we had a hand in causing their troubles?

America is better than that, and for generations my family has fought against such disgusting malfeasance.

Does my silence and inaction tarnish their deaths, which they sacrificed for freedom?

Weston Hall, a Black Mountain resident, was an early childhood development in Uganda. Now a firefighter with the city of Asheville, he is the author of several books and screenplays.