Soumaya Khalifa describes her move with her husband to metropolitan Atlanta in 1988 as “a breath of fresh air” after a short stint in rural South Carolina. But during a visit to Khalifa’s suburban home in Peachtree City, her sister was shocked by the homogeneity of shoppers at the local supermarket. “Everyone here is white!” she exclaimed.
“I hadn’t really noticed,” Khalifa says. “I don’t think about it, I just get involved. If I feel left out I’m going to do something about it.”
Thanks to her outgoing nature and initiative, Khalifa says she had relatively little trouble planting roots in Peachtree City. But back in 1988, getting involved in Atlanta’s fledgling Muslim community was another matter. Worshipping at the local mosque meant driving 40 miles every Saturday to the Al-Farooq Masjid in Midtown, the closest of only two mosques in the metro area at the time. Today, there are more than 40 mosques throughout Atlanta.
In that time, Khalifa has labored to establish the Islamic Speaker’s Bureau, the Fayette County Interfaith Network and a multi-faith women’s baking group. All of these organizations have played significant roles in the long, gradual process of establishing and integrating Atlanta’s burgeoning Muslim population into the wider metro Atlanta faith community.
Like all immigrant communities, Atlanta’s various distinct Muslim immigrant groups work to find a balance between preserving their cultural heritage and integrating into the American mainstream. Consequently, Atlanta’s mosques are more than Islamic places of worship, they are cultural bastions which connect American Muslims with an enormous diversity of family lineages, local Muslim leaders say.
“The mosques in the area have tended to be very segregated by type of belief or culture.” asserts Kelly Wentworth, co-founder of the Atlanta-based American Islamic Fellowship (AIF). She says interfaith organizations have aided Atlanta’s diverse Muslim population in building bridges across differences within the faith as well as without.
Interfaith activists and Muslim leaders agree that September 11th, 2001 was a pivotal turning point for both groups. While the tragic terrorist attacks exacerbated Islamophobia and prejudice, they also provided an impetus for Muslims and non-Muslims to reach out to one another.
“We’ve come a long way,” Khalifa asserts. “Is the Atlanta Muslim community fully integrated? Probably not. Does it need to be? Yes. There is still a lot of work to do.”
Education Through Exposure
Soumaya Khalifa steps to the podium with a clear gaze and a gentle smile, impeccably dressed in a gray suit and elegant purple headscarf. She cracks a joke to lighten the mood, eliciting a collective exhalation of relief. Wielding the clicker expertly, she plows through an information-packed Powerpoint presentation, providing expert elaboration in a firm, confident tone. Audience members nod slowly as she speaks directly to the relationship between jihad and extremist violence, cultural variations concerning appropriate dress for women, and the diversity of relevant applications of Shar’ia to everything from divorce to finance.
Her tone warms as she describes the Five Pillars of Islam, gesturing to an aerial photo of teeming pilgrims circling the Ka’ba. As she reaches her closing slide, she scans the crowd with a gentle smile. “Now let’s get to your questions. We have plenty of time, so please, ask anything you like.”
Hundreds of these enlightening, professional presentations are delivered each year on request to businesses, schools, government agencies and faith organizations through the Islamic Speaker’s Bureau, founded by Khalifa in 2001. Expert knowledge concerning the diversity of Muslim practice and complexity of contemporary issues is tailored to fit the needs of these specific audiences.
ISB’s efforts to raise awareness, increase familiarity and mitigate fear regarding Islam are complimented by Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters’ innovative television programming. By the time AIB President and CEO Collie Burnett Jr. was hired in 2000, AIB was the largest interfaith broadcasting network in the country. While Burnett proudly proclaims that the network has covered Atlanta’s Muslim population since its founding in 1969, Muslims have been much more fully integrated into AIB’s coverage under his leadership.
“We try to make sure we interview Muslims regularly for general stories. Or we might do a segment on how a local family is preparing for Ramadan,” executive producer Audrey Galex illustrates. “We want to showcase the multiplicity of voices and represent the rich diversity of Islam in America.”
AIB refuses to shy away from controversial issues such as Islamophobia and radical fundamentalism, says Galex. But while mainstream news media continues to portray Muslims as alien, controversial, and threatening, AIB seeks to combat prejudice by depicting Atlanta’s Muslims as “just another faith community.”
Galex, a former CNN Middle East correspondent, sees portraying Islam positively as integral to the unique mission of Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters. “There’s a spiritual dimension to life which would not even be hinted at in the mainstream news media” she says. “We want to explore the many ways that faith works in the world for good.”
While education is crucial, Khalifa emphasizes the importance of face-to-face interaction. Long-term relationships founded upon honest, open dialogue are much more transformative, she says. Fears and controversies are “humanized” when people meet Muslims from their own communities who share many of their hopes and interests.
Playing Together, Praying Together
Audrey and Soumaya laugh in the kitchen as they knead large lumps of freshly prepared dough. “Audrey, have you met Nadia? She and her husband Ali just moved here from Boston.” “So nice to meet you, Nadia. I’d shake your hand but mine’s a little doughy. Grab a fistful and join in!”
As the evening twilight fades, a chilly breeze blows against the shutters. The yeast begins to rise as laughter spills outward from the crowded sink where Muslim and Jewish women wash and dry their caked hands. Nadia inhales greedily and turns to Audrey. “Smells like my mother’s kitchen.”
Khalifa says this women’s baking group was founded in 2003 by a group of Muslim and Jewish women who wanted to forge personal bonds through shared human experience.
She cites a similar impetus for the formation of the Fayette County Interfaith Network following a successful joint 9/11 commemoration a year after the attack. Today, members participate in a joint program to provide lunches during the summer months for impoverished children in the area who receive free lunches throughout the school year, Khalifa says.
Jan Swanson has been laboring to facilitate such cooperative interaction in Atlanta for decades, working throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s as the Outreach Director of the Christian Council. For many years, it was a lonely effort characterized by indifference and tokenism, she says.
“Nobody even knew what a Muslim was and they didn’t care,” says Swanson. “They were the majority.”
But after the 9/11 attacks, “Christians came alive” Swanson remembers. “Many stepped forward to stand with our Muslim friends. We had a lot of catching up to do.”
Swanson took charge in the founding of the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta, the area’s largest and most influential interfaith organization. “At my age I can just put my foot down and say if we’re going to play together it’s going to be fair” quips Swanson. “There has to be equal representation on boards and throughout the organization; otherwise we’re never going to be the Beloved community” she explains.
“It took us a year to learn how to play together” Swanson muses. “But we’ve come a long way since then.”
Swanson seeks to move beyond dialogue into shared practice through World Pilgrims, an interfaith collective which organizes trips to international destinations of spiritual significance to all three Abrahamic faiths. AIB won its first Emmy for an enormously compelling documentary of a 2007 World Pilgrims tour of Turkey, says Galex.
“We’re getting people together and it’s working,” Swanson marvels. “We’re really bonding people in ten days flat and building trust.”
Evolution Through Exploration
A motley crew gather for the American Islamic Fellowship’s weekly Prayer Service on a warm Wednesday evening. A white college kid wearing a green “Live Simply” t-shirt, a dark skullcap and a patchy beard takes his place on the floor next to a clean shaven, tie-clad Pakistani immigrant in his forties. A svelte Moroccan-American woman throws her gym bag in the corner and plops down next to him, folding her spandex-clad legs beneath her as she shakes her long dark hair out of its lopsided pony tail.
The casually dressed blonde-haired woman at the front of the room looks at her watch and smiles broadly, scanning the dozen faces in front of her. She nods, then turns to face the colorful carpet-clad wall behind her. Together, they prostrate themselves solemnly, touching their foreheads to the floor as they begin praying in Arabic in unison...
AIF co-founders Kelly Wentworth and Melissa Robinson describe how interfaith organizations not only help integrate traditional Muslim communities, they help facilitate the emergence of new, distinctly American ways of practicing Islam.
AIF has close partnerships with a number of other similarly minded groups across traditions, including Punk Torah and the Emergent Cristian Cohort, Robinson says. Most recently, the groups held a joint celebration of Passover.
“We provide opportunities for people who want to experience other faith traditions, not just learn about about them” explains Wentworth. The group hosts alternative progressive prayer services weekly, enabling guests to “experience what it’s like to pray as Muslims do.”
“We want to provide safe space for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to express themselves and explore,” Wentworth states. “We’re really lucky because the Islamic community here get what we’re trying to do and is largely supportive. Our interfaith partners have been really helpful in helping us establish ourselves and be seen as a legitimate, non-divisive organization.”
Robinson sees their alternative approach to Islam as part of a wider global reformation movement within the faith. Wentworth concurs: “9/11 really made a lot of people sit up and say ‘what the heck are we doing here?’ People are starting to critically examine how Islam is practiced.”
“The internet is enormously helpful in connecting groups like ours,” Wentworth says. “It helps progressive Muslims around the world see that we’re not alone, which is empowering.” She suggests that, ironically, the extremist jihad launched against the United States may have fomented a significant, global counter-shift away from fundamentalist Islam towards the more progressive practice promoted by many American Muslims.