The all-American mosque

New Islamic center marks a big investment in Sacramento

Imam Mohamed Abdul-Azeez has overseen a $4 million investment in a new Sacramento mosque and Islamic center—and no one is freaking out.

Imam Mohamed Abdul-Azeez has overseen a $4 million investment in a new Sacramento mosque and Islamic center—and no one is freaking out.

Photo By mike iredale

Mohamed Abdul-Azeez, very probably the best-known Muslim among the nearly 70,000 in the Sacramento area, wants to raise his three children in the United States because “America is the best place in the world for Muslims to be.”

He believes that, he said, even though “I know there is anti-Muslim sentiment here.”

Azeez is the imam of the SALAM center at 4541 College Oak Drive, across the street from American River College. He has received national recognition for his efforts to diminish the distrust that exists, on both sides, between Muslims and non-Muslims. Last year, he received the Community Leadership Award from the Sacramento office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for his efforts locally, and he is active in Sacramento’s Interfaith Service Bureau.

And there is considerable excitement among members of the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims these days; the 23-year-old Islamic religious facility is about to get a new face. The SALAM center will move in January into a new and architecturally striking mosque nearby.

About $4.4 million is being invested in the new center, “all local money raised by the hardworking families of the Muslim community in Sacramento,” said Azeez.

But unlike mosque construction projects that have provoked xenophobia in other parts of the country, the SALAM center has gotten a much warmer welcome.

“This community is diverse and more open-minded,” he said. “There are many religions and immigrants here. Sacramento doesn’t have the cultural homogeneity of Tennessee that can automatically reject the ‘other,’ nor is it so emotionally scarred as New York, with the proposed Islamic center so close to a horrific scene of destruction.

“A culture like this will automatically deter or discourage haters,” he added.

The center had been housed in a large and plain building SALAM built in 1987 after purchasing the property. Planning for the new mosque started in June 2005, before Azeez arrived in the area in 2006. “We needed something that is exclusively a prayer hall, a chapel, so to speak. We were outgrowing the current setup and certainly needed more space.”

In addition to using the prayer hall on the second floor for prayers, the center will house an amphitheater for lectures and educational activities, a full-size library, a book and gift store, a fitness center, a social lounge, offices and storage areas.

Azeez is a passionate advocate of interfaith work and dedicates much of his time educating the community about the religion of Islam.

To Muslims, his message is, “Be the best American you can be.”

To non-Muslims: “American Muslims are not your enemy. Most Muslims everywhere are not your enemy. Those Muslim extremists you fear, we fear them too, because most of their victims are Muslims.”

“Some people stereotype Muslims,” he said. “They see a Muslim, they see a terrorist, so of course that’s a problem for us. But that problem doesn’t begin to compare with the problems other communities—Irish Catholics, Africans, Jews, Chinese, Germans and Italians and Japanese during World War II—have suffered in this country in the past. And the members of those communities are now parts of the American landscape.”

Azeez said that recent travels in the Middle East reminded him why people keep wanting to come to America. “It is because we are a country of laws, of due process, a country where people have rights. If someone is wronged, there are steps available to protest.”

Azeez was born in Egypt and has lived in the United States since 2000. Before that, there had been intermittent visits, and he learned English and excelled in it, “because that’s what my dad wanted me to do.”

He attended a Muslim school as a teenager, but, he said, his father also wanted him to know people of other faiths, so at the same time he was enrolled in a Catholic high school.

He was permitted to question teachers in the Catholic school, but not in the Muslim one, he recalled, “which was difficult for me, because, like every teenager, I was questioning everything all the time.”

American newspapers were available in Cairo, he said, and they were printing stories daily about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. He thought it was astounding that American newspapers had the freedom to do that.

That was when he first started thinking that the United States might be a good place for a Muslim to be, he said.

At his father’s insistence, he went to medical school, graduated and was licensed to practice medicine in Egypt and the United States. But his father’s interests were not his, he said, so he applied to Ohio State University and was accepted. He earned an undergraduate degree in political science after several years, which included getting married. Then he obtained a master’s degree in social science from the University of Chicago.

He was working at a nonprofit Muslim organization in Columbus, Ohio, and applied for the SALAM center position at the suggestion of a friend in Sacramento.

He is still surprised at receiving the appointment, he said, because of his age—he was barely 30 years old at the time—and the fact that his education had been more secular than theological, although he had been involved in Islamic activism and education for the previous 10 years, and has worked with numerous institutions from the Midwest to the West Coast, and taught at some of them.

Asked if he or his family had personally experienced any difficulties because they are Muslim, Azeez said, “Not really.”

“My wife takes our children to the playground, and she’s never had a negative experience, and she wears the hijab, the head covering that many Muslim women wear, so she’s identifiable as a Muslim.”

“I don’t worry about my kids being attacked or harassed because they’re Muslim. I worry about the creeps, like any father does for his kids.”

Visitors to the SALAM center mosque will see a house of Islamic worship, but they will also see a slice of America. They are likely to see a bunch of laughing, shouting 7- and 8-year-old boys and girls playing with a basketball, trying to toss it in a hoop that, for them, is very high. In Azeez’s office, they’ll see a 2-foot-wide green practice putting carpet, the use of which, the imam said mournfully, has not improved his golf game very much.

When Drew Parenti, the agent in charge of the Sacramento FBI office, presented Azeez with his Community Leadership Award, he described the SALAM center as “a mosque, a community center, an elementary school, a preschool, a weekend school, an educational institution, and a place of spiritual uplifting and personal development.”

It is all of that, Azeez said. “We have 60 children in our school. They learn about Islam, and they learn about America, along with arithmetic and history,” he said.