- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) - On graduation day for Corvallis High School, temperatures stretched into the mid-90s, rendering Gill Coliseum particularly stuffy. But Eithaar Shakir didn’t care.

Like her classmates, the 18-year-old had been waiting for the June 8 ceremony all year, facing it with a mixture of excitement about new beginnings and sadness for what she was leaving behind.

“Graduation day was amazing. I spent my time with my family, friends, and loved ones,” she recalls. “My family made me a surprise party a couple of days after the graduation ceremony. It was the best thing. I have never felt so special before.”

While she waited for the ceremony, Shakir pulled out her cellphone for a little Web-surfing, along with many of her classmates. But it would have been easy for a visitor to pick out which student was Shakir: the resident of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was the only graduate whose cap and gown ensemble included the traditional Muslim head covering known as a hijab.

That’s essentially the picture presented by Muslims in and around the Corvallis area: They have pretty much the same lives as every other mid-valley resident, but they occasionally look or act a little differently while living it.

Most mid-valley Muslims are familiar with the questions their religious and cultural observances can prompt. Corvallis is among the cities to have learned by painful experience that people’s lack of knowledge about Islam can spark fear and anger, hatred and violence.

But Muslims who spoke with the Democrat-Herald and Gazette-Times said for the most part, they feel welcome and respected in Corvallis, even when someone is curious about the trappings of their religious or cultural traditions.

“I love Corvallis. It’s a very warm and welcoming community,” said Ibrahim Moussaoui, 20, a mid-valley native and Muslim whose parents came to Oregon from Algeria. “Overall, the community is very supportive and understanding of many cultures, Islamic included.”


According to the Pew Research Center, which did a nationwide Religious Landscape Study in 2014, only about 1 percent of Oregon’s population of about 4 million identify themselves as followers of Islam.

Benton County, according to a 2003 study by the Glenmary Research Center in Tennessee, is considered the county with the fewest religiously affiliated people per capita in the state, of any religion at all. At the same time, however, Corvallis, the county’s biggest city, is one of fewer than a dozen cities in Oregon to house a mosque: the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center, built some four decades ago.

Mosque members estimate about 2,000 people attend with regularity, which they figure is roughly half the size of the overall mid-valley Muslim community, taking into account Oregon State University students and their families in the Corvallis and Philomath area. However, even with that estimate, Muslims still make up only a tiny fraction of Benton County’s total population, which the U.S. Census places near 87,000.


Perhaps the most visible aspect of Islam is the hijab, the head covering, which women begin to wear in public once they reach puberty. In the mid-valley, the garment is relatively common, but can still be a curiosity.

Britney Harris, 26, converted to Islam before moving to Corvallis from her home state of Maine five years ago and says wearing the hijab makes her feel more connected to God. It is, she says, “a personal reminder that I am a walking symbol for my religion.”

When her daughter Zakiyah Warsame, 2 1/2, is older, she’ll encourage her to wear a hijab, too. But Harris says in the end, her daughter will make her own choice.

Eithaar Shakir says her parents encouraged her to wear a hijab, but she could have chosen not to. There are times when it is not necessary to wear a hijab, but when it is, she says, she feels incomplete without it.

“The hijab is not worn at home. I don’t wear it when I am around women or my brothers, father, grandfathers and uncles,” she said.

“Wearing the hijab is important to me for many reasons. Some of the reasons are: I cover myself from males by wearing it, and I show people that I am a Muslim and proud to be one. Also, I want to follow Allah’s orders.”

When she marries - and Shakir says she will someday, because marriage is important in Islam - she wants to have children. She will encourage her daughters to follow her example.

“My rule is to always convince my future children, and never force them to do anything,” she says. “If they were forced, they will not follow what I forced them to do for the rest of their lives, but if I convinced them and taught them, then they will follow what I taught them.”

Ibrahim Moussaoui says he feels the same way. He isn’t currently dating anyone- his pre-med program and a desire to get into real estate leave him little time to pursue a relationship - but he already knows what he’s looking for.

Muslim men are not required to marry a Muslim (the reverse is not true for Muslim women, however), but Moussaoui said it will be important to him that his wife both follow Islam.

“I think it’s absolutely crucial, necessary for success in a marriage, for both the husband and wife to be united in their religious views,” he says.

He also knows he wants the freedom to choose his own bride - not like his father, who wrote home to Algeria looking for a wife, and whose family suggested the young woman they knew who worked at a nearby sewing business.

“My parents didn’t meet before they got married. They simply sent a letter across the ocean to Algeria,” Moussaoui says, grinning. “My mom said yes and my dad said yes and that’s how it happened. Definitely a leap of faith.”

Abdulrahman Alsulaim, 25, is a senior studying industrial engineering at OSU. He arrived in January 2010 through a study-abroad program from his home country of Saudi Arabia, says he thinks it’s common to confuse the cultural interpretations of Islam - such as if, when and how a hijab is worn - with the religion itself.

Alsulaim is president of the university’s Muslim Student Association. For Night of the Crescent, an annual event put on by the association, he was asked to have a booth to debunk stereotypes about Muslims. He disagreed, saying it’s more important to talk about what Islam is rather than what it isn’t.

For Alsulaim, Islam involves a direct connection between a person and God. It doesn’t mean a person can’t make mistakes, or that the only way to test how “good” a Muslim he is is by weighing what he wears, what foods he eats and what religious celebrations he observes on a figurative scale.

“You cannot scale people,” he says. “Be a good person in life and in Islam. Don’t scale people.”

That said, Muslims who spoke with reporters agreed living in the United States makes cultural choices easier.

Harris and Moussaoui, for instance, aren’t interested in living in a Muslim country. “We’re so fortunate, because (here) we have the ability to live our lives and practice our religion how we choose,” Harris says.


Throughout Benton County, Muslims can be seen at pretty much the same activities as the rest of their neighbors. They go to work, browse the Farmers Market, shop at the Co-op, play with their children at the park, spend hours with friends over giant lattes at Starbucks or Dutch Bros.

Islam is woven into their daily lives. Ibrahim Moussaoui, for instance, continues to shoot hoops with friends during Ramadan. He just doesn’t join his teammates for water breaks, because the holy month of Ramadan is a time for fasting.

For 30 days, from dawn to dusk, participants do not eat or drink. It’s meant to deepen their appreciation for the things they have, draw attention to the plight of those who aren’t as fortunate, and encourage them to spend time drawing closer to God.

They also try to keep themselves free from other things that might separate them from God, such as conflicts, gossip and foul language.

Muslim children are not required to observe Ramadan until they hit puberty, but many start practicing when they are much younger, maybe fasting for a few hours or for a day here and there.

Moussaoui began when he was in fourth or fifth grade and says the month-long observance is among his favorite times of the year.

“It is challenging, but by no means meant to be a burden,” he says. The first day is hard, but after that, “my body knows. Mostly, I also know. I’m not going to eat until 9 o’clock, so why worry about it?”

A lot of time is spent buying, preparing, consuming and cleaning up after a meal, he says. He uses that time instead for prayer and gratitude for the things he has.

“Fasting” from conflicts and the other irritants of life make him feel more focused and provides a heightened sense of clarity. He thinks about the people who have no choice but to fast and who have nothing to break it with when the sun goes down. It is, he says, “a training ground for becoming the best person you can be.”

It’s also a good tool for talking to others about what Islam means to him, Moussaoui says. He once spent a good 15 minutes talking to a guy who asked Moussaoui why he’d declined to sample any of the snacks that he, Moussaoui, had brought to a gathering. “So many questions he had,” Moussaoui remembers, laughing. “It was awesome.”

Eithaar Shakir says she got the impression people were afraid to ask her questions. That’s a shame, she says, because she loves to answer them.

“People would be scared to get close to me or to speak with me. They would just assume that I am different,” she says. “I actually like it when people ask me about why I dress this way or other questions. I like to share my beliefs.”

Initially, Shakir says, she thought the reticence was normal. Perhaps everyone reacted to each other the way they seemed to react to her, she says.

“But now I noticed that I am treated differently,” she says. “Americans don’t know how to deal with change. I think that is the problem.”

Britney Harris used to find herself in the position of Explainer of Islam more often in Maine than she does here. It started with her family members, who were uneasy about her decision to convert.

Harris met Ismail Warsame, the man who would become her husband, while he was studying at the University of Maine. Harris herself was 17 at the time and Warsame, 21.

“It was just friendship at first. He was different than anyone I’d ever met before. I guess that was kind of intriguing,” she recalls.

Warsame had come to the United States at age 15 to escape war in Somalia. He and Harris began dating, and continued a long-distance relationship during his study abroad trip to Egypt.

Harris grew up with a nondenominational Christian background but began questioning that faith as a teen. She liked the structure of Islam, its single God - Allah - and the emphasis on personal accountability. She read up on the religion, joined some online chat rooms and visited a mosque.

Family members were concerned she was changing herself to please a boyfriend, somebody they already wondered about because he was older - and different.

Her grandmother worried about the state of her eternal soul. Her mother said one day she’d have to choose between her relationship and her family.

“I stood fast in what I believed and let them know I still loved them, and it didn’t matter what they believed,” Harris recalls. “I had to just show them through my actions, the lifestyle choices I made were to better myself.”

Harris and Warsame married via telephone while he was still in Egypt. His family had concerns, too. Had she really accepted Islam? Would she someday leave their son?

Both families are supportive of the couple now, Harris says, and having Zayd, 4, and his little sister Zakiyah, 2 1/2, have helped bridge any remaining gaps. Her mother and sister even join her in covering their hair during World Hijab Day.

The hijab still prompts questions from time to time. Harris says she’s been asked more than once whether her husband “makes” her wear a hijab, or whether she considers herself “oppressed.”

“That’s the biggest misconception I face here. I’m Muslim, and I choose to cover,” she said. “No, my husband doesn’t ‘make’ me do anything. I do the things I do because my Creator requires me to.”

In the upstairs room of the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center, where the women worship separately from the men, more than two dozen women gather on a Thursday during Ramadan, ready to break their fast together as the sun finishes its journey below the horizon.

Muslims pray five times a day, but Ramadan is a time for special gatherings.

On this particular evening, the women at the mosque come up the stairs, slip off their shoes and gather in prayer and fellowship before the nightly feast.

They moved to Corvallis from Syria, from Palestine, from Yemen, from elsewhere in the United States. They have been here decades or just a few years. They have husbands and sons older than 10 worshipping downstairs, or young daughters playing with friends in an adjoining room, or determined toddlers of either gender that keep trying to worm their way into a lap during the prostrate portions of the evening prayers, only to be headed off by equally determined older siblings.

Darkness has fallen and the imam’s voice on the overhead speaker fades away. No pork will be found on a table here, nor alcohol, and food must be halal, or prepared according to Islamic law.

The women pass around plates of dates and dried mango, then turn to heaping dishes of chicken legs, casseroles, salads with yogurt and mint. Caffeine is not forbidden, but it’s well past 9 p.m.; the women instead sip from water bottles or cans of Sprite.

They talk about what it’s like to travel to and from their home countries, or the countries of their husbands, and how they always seem to be the “random” passenger chosen for a special security check. They shake their heads over the warring factions in the Middle East, over the extremist behavior people associate with their religion, over the Islamic State militant groups known as IS or ISIS.

“ISIS, we don’t like it at all,” Ghada Barbour, who moved to Corvallis from Egypt, says flatly. “They’re not Muslim. We consider them not Muslim.”


The specter of terrorism haunts mid-valley Muslims, whether or not they’ve faced it directly.

In November 2010, Corvallis friends of Mohamed Osman Mohamud were stunned to learn the former OSU student, who occasionally attended prayers at the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center, had been arrested for attempting to set off a bomb at a Portland tree-lighting ceremony.

The following week, Corvallis residents were left reeling by an arson fire at the mosque that led to an indictment of Corvallis man Cody Seth Crawford, then 24. (Crawford’s trial remains delayed because of an ongoing dispute over DNA evidence.)

In spite of being born in Albany and all his years at mid-valley schools - Mountain View Elementary in Corvallis, Philomath High School class of 2013 - Ibrahim Moussaoui said his peers sometimes thought it was funny to call on his Algerian background. He remembers the names: Terrorist. Towel-head. Sand monkey.

They meant it jokingly, he says, just messing with him. He insists it never bothered him. “Their world view is extremely limited,” he explains. “They need some awareness. More exposure.”

Britney Harris worries about the reactions that lie in wait for her son, Zayd Warsame, 4.

She once bought a toy gun for him at a fair and posted a picture of him playing with it on Instagram.

She wasn’t prepared for the critical comments she received. A fair-skinned boy wearing, say, cowboy boots and holding the same gun would have been seen as cute, she argues.

“I was angry,” she acknowledges. “Because why is it that my little boy, because he is brown, and Muslim, is not allowed to be a little boy? Now he looks like a 4-year-old terrorist?”

Abdulrahman Alsulaim says all Muslims feel the pressure: “Just be careful. Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t talk about politics so much.”

They talk about feeling watched all the time; by the CIA or the National Security Agency. For the most part, they are joking, Alsulaim says, but at some level, they’re serious. “I realize, because we are afraid, we think like this. We realize this is just not true,” he says.

His mother, at home in Saudi Arabia, takes such jokes more seriously, he adds. America may celebrate freedom of religion and of expression, but “All she knows is Muslims are wanted all over the world.”

Alsulaim has vivid memories of the attacks of Sept. 11, though he was only a child at the time. He remembers the tension, the way his family stood all day in front of the television, and how everyone at school wondered whether they would feel any effects.

Similar emotions hit the day the Corvallis mosque was firebombed. He felt, he says, “the same feeling that every Muslim has: Now they are afraid of us. They’ll be even more afraid of us.”

He was surprised and touched by the reaction he experienced instead: an overwhelming outpouring of support and solidarity from the rest of the community. Churches held candlelight vigils. People from all faiths came to stand with them. Strangers said how sorry they were.

Alsulaim said he experienced similar reactions when Islamic extremism made the news in other parts of the world: the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

“All we’ve found is people coming to talk to us: ‘Do you need any help?’” he says.

“It made us feel really, really comfortable here.”

Alsulaim says he’s never really felt uncomfortable in the United States, even when he’s praying - which he’s been known to do even in the food court at the mall in Tigard’s Washington Square.

But to Alsulaim, Saudi Arabia is home. When he’s finished with his degree, and with graduate school, he plans to return there - and bring whatever he can of his more expansive American way of life.

On visits home, Alsulaim says, he is often struck by the conversations he has with his cousins there. “Six years; they’re exactly the same as high school,” he says. “All we talk about is soccer, cars, clothes and where to travel to in the summer.”

For Alsulaim, those are the great things about the United States: Its very diversity, the number of people’s ideas and backgrounds converging, that new inventions and new ways of thinking become the norm.

When he gets home, Alsulaim says, he hopes to bring some of that newness to ways of thinking in Saudi Arabia, because change is what prompts growth.

“At least,” he adds, “I will try to tell it to people.”

Corvallis, Alsulaim says, has modeled the things he’d like to see at home: diversity. Engagement. Social justice.

“Thanks,” he says, “for letting me see what I really want to see in the whole world.”


Information from: Gazette-Times, https://www.gtconnect.com

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