- Associated Press - Monday, November 23, 2015

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - In the masjid, the room is quiet, a pair of ticking of clocks the only sound. Then, perhaps in protest, a truck rumbles loudly by, the driver revving his engine.

Occupied by greater thoughts, the eight men gathered don’t seem to mind.

It’s Friday afternoon, and Friday for Muslims is the Christian equivalent of the Sabbath.

Clothed in modest, white attire and a maroon taqiyah, an older man whispers from the only seat in the house. Foreign, rhythmic words emanate from the edge of what was once a dining room.

Soon other men join in.

The lights are off, the shades drawn and the fireplace offers no flame. In dim light, Fuad Khan readies himself, removing his shoes before kneeling.

Two clocks by the mantle indicate it’s almost 1:30 p.m. in Wyoming.

Arabic verse fills the room. Time to pray.

The men cup their hands, ritualistically bringing them to their faces. No sooner than they’ve started, they are interrupted. Someone’s at the door.

The uninvited visitor is Bret Colvin, who heads up the Stop Islam in Gillette group.

As the newest of only three mosques in predominantly Christian Wyoming, the Queresha Masjid in Gillette stands as a symbol of peace. But not for everyone.

The group has expressed anger about the new mosque, even more so since the recent Paris terrorist attacks. They have their own ideas about Islam. It’s an attitude that has made something as simple as prayer an act of bravery for Gillette Muslims.

For those who believe, the new mosque is a house of God. For those who don’t, it’s a house of mystery.

As of Friday, the Stop Islam group had 157 members on its Facebook page, more than double what it had two weeks earlier. Its aim, according to the site, is to, “Stop the Islam invasion sponsored by Matt Mead and Barrack (sic) Obama. Remove the mosque and Islam school from Gillette.”

The night before, Colvin told the News Record via Facebook that he intended to go to the mosque.

“There’s no version of this story that ends with the Muslims in Gillette,” he messaged with a Guy Fawkes avatar. “Mead and his relocation deal with Obama and Lutheran services isn’t happening, at least here it isn’t. See you there. You will know it’s me.”

From the doorstep, one can see the protesters gathered. The group is small and there are no signs or yelling, but it’s a clear indication of fear and loathing in Gillette.

“I’ve done a lot of reading and this is how it starts, from what I hear,” said a protester who didn’t want to be identified.

“It,” he added, is communities being infiltrated by jihadists.

The Sunni Muslims at the mosque are members of the four branches of the local Khan family. They’re men of Pakistani decent whose ancestor Louie Khan settled in Sheridan in the early 1900s and made his living selling hamburgers and tamales. Now the family owns a number of hotels in the area.

Some have lived here 30 years.

Resident and hotel clerk Fuad Khan was at the mosque that Friday afternoon just before prayer. A young man of age 20, he’s friendly and polite. In many ways, he’s no different than anyone else in Gillette. He’s a Denver Broncos fan. He likes video games, music and riding his motorcycle.

While he’s Muslim, Khan’s religion shares some basic principles with Christianity. Both groups are searching for a path to something greater than themselves. They want answers, inner peace, an afterlife. Both believe that in following the word of God, they’ll lead better lives.

“Their heart is in the same place as anyone else’s,” Khan said. “If we lose our faith, we’ve lost everything.”

But there’s no denying the two beliefs have their differences. Muslims aren’t beholden to the Bible’s teachings. They read from the Quran and follow teachings of a prophet who lived more than half a millennium after Jesus.

To an outsider, it’s a religion shrouded in mystery.

“People don’t have a concept of what Islam is,” Khan said. “You won’t get the right answer until you get the right source.”

The masjid opened in September, a red and white sign in the yard the only indication.

The former home, now a mosque, was named after the mother of longtime Gillette resident Tafial Khan, whose mother was one of the first of the Khans to settle in the area. It will serve as a makeshift mosque until the Khan families can save enough money to build a real one.

Muslims pray five times a day, and before buying the house, there wasn’t a good place for the family to come together and pray, Khan said. He said he wants the children in the family to have the same level of religious education he did.

For now, the mosque is used only by the Khan families. Eventually, the goal is to have Muslims from other areas come there to learn, pray and worship.

From the outside, it doesn’t look any different than other homes in the area. The exterior is well kept, and although it borders the Gillette Golf Club, the house is unpretentious.

Inside, while mostly empty, it’s full of 1,400 of years of spiritual tradition.

In the living room, rows of ornate prayer rugs press the floor and define the prayer area. Unfamiliar wooden symbols hang from the walls. Clocks tell time at five points in the day.

It’s a humble, clean space that, if it weren’t for ideological cues, would beget images of the Pope’s living quarters. But it’s not a Christian building and for some in Gillette, that’s a problem.

Khan isn’t worried.

“My belief is that this is God’s house and God’s going to take care of it,” he said.

At the door, Colvin’s wearing a camouflage jacket with the hood drawn, a USMC hat tucked under it. He’s large, mustached and in sunglasses.

The politically charged resident later said he’s a member of the local militia. He also belongs to groups supporting Donald Trump and Wyoming’s succession from the union, according to his Facebook page.

But he’s more than a man of political fire. Colvin was born and raised in Gillette. He works at a pipeline and has a home business fixing computers and cellphones. He’s a former Marine who lives with turtles. His wife, who was his steadying force, passed away a few years ago.

He and Khan talk.

While they might be suspicious of each other, they’re both just men, neither the threat to each other he might think.

Colvin says he’s unarmed and the exchange is cautious, but civil. Asking basic questions, like where the family’s from and how long they’ve lived in Gillette, Colvin seems more the concerned neighbor than a far-right advocate.

Khan’s older and more intense brother, Mujahaid, overhears the conversation and tells Colvin to leave or he’ll call police. Fuad Khan tells him it’s OK and to go back inside.

Fuad Khan continues talking with Colvin, explaining his history and that he’s open to questions, before telling the stranger he has to get back to prayer. He invites Colvin to return anytime.

Colvin later said he isn’t against the Khans and accepted their explanation. He said he doesn’t mind if it’s just the families praying. But he also said that’s how things started in Dearborn, Michigan.

“Dearborn was supposed to be just be a couple of them,” Colvin said. “Now it’s 60 to 70 percent Somalian Muslims. They’ve taken up the whole town.”

Colvin doesn’t want that for his Gillette.

The former Marine and Catholic said he supports freedom of religion, even if it’s Islam.

“I didn’t fight for the Bill of Rights and Constitution for 10 years for nothing,” he said. “I’ll fight to death for the right of them to study their Muslim religion.”

The real concern, Colvin said, is refugees.

“We’ve been on to Matt Mead and the whole resettlement thing in Wyoming for about three years now,” Colvin said.

Before the Paris attacks occurred, Colvin said he believed Gov. Mead wanted to open a refugee resettlement center in Gillette. Initially, 1,600 refugees would arrive, with that figure later growing to about 16,000 Congolese and Syrians.

Colvin’s fear stems from a September 2013 letter Mead sent to the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The letter was sent to begin a discussion about the possibility of a refugee program, said David Bush, communications director with the office of the governor.

During Mead’s last campaign, there was misinformation going around that Mead wanted a resettlement program, but it is not the case, Bush said. No conversation about how many refugees, where they would come from or where a center would be, took place.

After the Paris attacks, Mead sent a letter to President Obama that says Wyoming will not allow refugees until it can be certain they are not terrorists.

Colvin’s concern, founded or not, is that a few refugees would turn into many.

The connection between mosques and refugees is that mosques could lead to a greater influx of Muslims, and in turn refugees, Colvin said, adding that he believes Christianity and Islam are opposites of each other.

“The infidel is nonbeliever and all nonbelievers must either convert or die,” Colvin said about his understanding of what the Quran says. “If they are true to their religion, then all of us are the enemy. I’m not the enemy. I had questions.”

With his questions answered, it appeared things were settled.

They weren’t.

Colvin said there was aggressive talk by some in his group, but he advised them against it and wants nothing to do with violence. For his part, Colvin said he’s acting as a mediator of sorts, trying to stop the Khans and the group from clashing.

Colvin said his concerns about the mosque and what it could lead to will be addressed through the proper channels. He said he’s talked with building inspectors and the fire marshal about proper school and church zoning, disability access and other issues.

“The law applies to everyone,” he said. “They (the Khans) should not receive any special exemptions.”

If going by the book should fail, the Marine said he would consider it a defeat.

“Then I lose,” he said. “The people of Gillette lose.”

The Khans are used to the stares and accusatory remarks of strangers. Because of their faith, they’re judged - even hated - for being different.

Sometimes the weight of prejudice gets to Fuad Khan.

“You get sick and tired of being that person that has to hide for no reason,” he said.

While he shoulders a burden that would anger others, faith stills his hand. Islam means submission to God, and to let anger rule one’s life would be contrary to its teachings.

When prayer was finished, Fuad Khan read a letter sent to the News Record from another man opposed to having a mosque in Gillette.

It implies that Muslims, as a general rule, are terrorists.

“This (Islam) is not something we should be afraid of. This is something we should support, with this being a country of rights,” Fuad Khan said. “I want every human to have some sort of connection with God, no matter how he does it.”

Aftab Khan said all the Muslims he knows are vehemently against terrorism. The Khan family, especially, has good reason to be.

Aftab Khan said that in the family village in Pakistan, a former general heading an anti-terrorism force met with local villagers, including Fuad’s grandfather and great uncle. During the meeting, a bomb went off. There were no survivors.

“We understand the pain and heartache they are going through because it happened to us,” Aftab Khan said. “We all have the same enemy here. The vast 99.9 percent of Muslims hate this and have suffered from this form of terrorism.”

The family refuses to let anger win. Being Muslim in Gillette, Wyoming, is about something greater than their feelings or even how the world sees them.

It’s about faith.


Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, https://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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