The FBI Investigated My Visit to the First Mosque in Alaska
Mosque in progress. Photo by Shaian Mohammadi
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The FBI Investigated My Visit to the First Mosque in Alaska

Notes from two brown guys trying to understand a growing Muslim community in an icy political climate.
September 11, 2016, 4:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada

Before the sun is up, before I've even picked up my bags at the Anchorage airport terminal, I start to notice the curious looks. At first I don't mention it to my Muslim-American associate Shaian. To be fair, we both stand out like sore brown thumbs in a sea of jean shorts and woodland camo Crocs.

The last thing I want to do is assume that we're going to be racially profiled, or that we're the focus of some backwater bigotry, but it's difficult to remain pragmatic when you end up in a room behind an FBI building explaining your purpose in Alaska. I tell the officer that we're in the remote Northwest to visit congregants of the Islamic Community Center of Anchorage Alaska—the state's first-ever mosque—to examine how their small Muslim community is faring in a sociopolitical climate colder than its glaciers.

Historically, Alaska has been one of the most conservative states in the union, having only voted blue once in 1964 after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Over the past 25 years, Alaska has been quietly evolving. From 1980 to 2015, the the population of minorities has increased approximately 25 percent, with nonwhites now being listed as 40 percent of the state's demographics according to numbers provided by the Alaska Department of Labor.

Even with this political and cultural shift, Alaska, like many locations in the United States, can be a difficult place to exist for Muslim-Americans. In 2010, in a small town called King Salmon, the FBI foiled a terrorist plot that left many residents on edge and weary of their Muslim neighbors. More recently, Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, endorsed a Republican presidential nominee who has centered his campaign around anti-Islamic rhetoric, only adding to the uneasy tension here.

Beyond the quiet anti-Muslim undertones, Alaska has the highest rate of gun deaths in the country, the third highest violent crime rate, and a police presence that's also near the bottom of the list. When one factors in an arctic climate not synonymous with Muslim countries, you'd expect Alaska to be the last place that any practitioner of Islam would want to live. And you'd be dead wrong.

In late 2012, the Islamic Community Center of Anchorage Alaska broke ground on its multiyear construction project. This marks a historic event, because as it nears completion, the ICCAA will be the first-ever mosque to be erected in the state of Alaska. 6,000 miles away from Mecca and only a short flight from the Arctic Circle, the large white two-story complex is an isolated sanctuary for Muslim-Americans that call the The Last Frontier home.

I joked that this assignment could go the way of The Revenant, but as we drive down the Old Seward Highway towards our hotel, Anchorage looks like a lot of other American towns. I look out the window at a string of pro-Trump signs that line the road, and at first glance, I think nothing of it. After all, we're in a Republican state in an unprecedented election year.

It turns out we're staying in the same hotel that held a Trump rally just nights before. I read up on the rally and discover that the Trump campaign headquarters in Alaska is being set up right across the street. Shaian thinks this is fortunate news and decides that he wants to head over there after we grab breakfast to wrangle a quote from a campaign surrogate for a piece he's working on about climate change.

Down in the dining room, I help myself to a surprisingly decent continental breakfast, while flat screen TVs that line the walls echo a talking head with a bad haircut and cheap suit, vociferating about Hillary's emails. I'd never even heard of the One America News Network before coming to Alaska, but I now know that an hour of watching that garbage is akin to waterboarding.

I finish whipping up some Belgian waffles, stroll over to an open table in the crowded dining room, put my breakfast plate down, and head back to the drink line to pour myself a cup of coffee. Seconds later, I turn to see someone grabbing my plate and tossing it in the trash.

The server there apologizes for the "inconvenience" and asks what we're in town for. I'm reluctant to tell her at first because I don't want to cause a scene with all the camo clad fellas who are exercising their Second Amendment rights while enjoying their meals. Quietly, I tell her that I'm in town to write a piece on the new mosque that's being built around the corner. She looks at me and says, "What's a mosque?"

After finishing my coffee, we head down the road for an impromptu meet-and-greet with Trump campaign staff. Inside the massive structure is a confusing combination of hotel rooms, offices, retail locations, a gym, and an ice rink all stacked on top of each other.

Shaian going from office-to-office asking for the location of the Trump campaign office quickly proves to be a terrible idea, and garners a little too much negative attention. We are immediately shadowed by several police officers and rent-a-cops until we leave the building.

Later that night (or day, because the sun is still up around 8 PM) we travel to the ICCAA. As we drive around the neighborhood trying to navigate the maze of construction, I notice several of the houses surrounding the masjid brazenly sporting Trump regalia—banners, bumper stickers, lawn signs—the works. I can't help but to feel like this is some sort of passive-aggressive stance at their new Muslim neighbors. The last time I'd been in a mosque was my deployment to Iraq almost a decade earlier, and that was under completely different circumstances. I know first-hand how groups of weaponized Americans can act around Muslims, and it isn't always pleasant.

While we stand outside waiting, the parking lot begins to fill with worshippers. One of the members walking in for the Isha, or evening prayer, seems happy to see us even though we are complete strangers. He introduces himself and his two young boys then graciously ushers us in.

Evening prayer. Photo by Dylan Park

Before the praying starts, we stand in the back of the carpeted room, and look on as an elder sits on the floor with a group of young boys gathered around him. He speaks to them about the importance of receiving an education to provide for their families and community. With attentive eyes, they ask him questions about college options and potential career fields. I think about myself at that same age, and I'm a bit ashamed of what a little shithead I was. These children were discussing callings in law, medicine, and engineering to contribute to humanity; at 11-years-old, I couldn't be bothered with anything more than Super Nintendo and Thrasher magazines.

When the members finish their mesmerizing prayer, we meet with one of the leaders of the community—an African man named Lameen, who has a reserved but noble presence about him. Initially, he's hesitant to open up to us, and declines an official interview.

He expresses reservation due to previous threats and vandalism directed towards the masjid. Each news report of a terrorist attack carried out around the globe by Islamic extremists seems to bring more and more media outlets to their growing community. Not all of them with good intentions, he explains.

After some informal conversation, he sees the sincerity of our approach. We are instructed to come back the next day, when we'll be able to speak with the mosque's community relations coordinator. Before we leave, he says that we are always welcome.

The following day, I park right across from one of the homes adorned in Trump banners and American flags. I notice a man working under the hood of a car eyeballing me as I exit my vehicle. We make eye contact, and as pleasantly as I can, I wave and say hello. He doesn't reciprocate my greeting and steps out from behind the muscle car gripping a mallet. Red flags immediately go up in my head, and I tell Shaian to stay his ass in the car.

Under watchful scrutiny, I approach him to explain that I'm a journalist writing a story about the new mosque that's being built just feet from his house. I ask if he has any commentary that he'd like to share.

He immediately dismisses me with, "I'm not interested." I say no problem, and as I walk away, he yells, "I want no part of your liberal agenda! This isn't a game to me!" I turn back to assure him that I'm not up to any funny business, and that I'm actually a decorated war veteran myself. I show him the worn black metal bracelet on my right wrist that displays the name of a dead friend. This seems to ease the tension just enough and he places the mallet on the engine block. He's visibly embarrassed to have treated me so rudely and thanks me for my service.

"Look, I'm a red-blooded American and I love my country," he explains. Me too, I say. Me too. "I have nothing against Muslims, but when they show up, innocent people start dying, and that's a fact." Wait, what? I ask him to clarify. "I don't have any problems with these folks as long as they keep to themselves and don't blow anything up." Yikes. I want to explain to him that, statistically, he has a much greater chance of being gored to death by an angry moose in Alaska, than he does of dying in a terrorist attack carried out by radical Islamists. I don't even waste my breath though. The only thing that's radical in his neighborhood is the cherry 1989 Chevrolet Camaro Iroc-Z that he's wrenching on, I quip. He chuckles, and I thank him for taking a brief moment to speak with me before I head back across the street.

Inside the mosque, I'm greeted by Youssef, a local physician who also acts as the communications director for the ICCAA. "Why Alaska?" I ask. He tells me that as a physician looking for an immigration visa, one of the requirements is that they work in an underserved community. "Anchorage isn't a bad community," he says. "It's just too far away from the Lower 48 and there aren't a lot of people here."

Alaska sports the lowest population per square mile in the United States. But that's slowly changing. "A lot of people don't know that Anchorage is the second most diverse place in the country behind New York," Youssef explains. He's slightly mistaken. According to data reported by the University of Alaska, three neighborhoods in Anchorage actually have the most diverse census tracts in the entire country.

He reminisces about a time when their congregation was so small that they worshipped in a rented out retail space in a strip mall down the road. But when an inundation of political refugees from the Middle East started moving to Anchorage, they soon outgrew that space, and had to rent out the space next door, too.

After pooling together some savings, they invested in building a center big enough to service their community that Youssef estimates is now over two thousand people. More importantly they wanted a site that promoted growth and a venue that would ultimately help them establish a positive rapport within Anchorage.

I try to ask him about any negative experiences that they've faced in recent years. He alludes to cases of vandalism, death threats, and briefly mentions a law enforcement plant that tried to infiltrate and entrap the mosque—but declines to provide details. Youssef isn't too interested in talking about hate crimes. He jokes about an incident where an individual emailed them to say that he hopes Trump is elected so all the Muslims are forced to leave America. He chuckles when he tells us that the bigot accidentally emailed them from his wife's work email, and they received an awkward apology the next day.

Youssef pivots to discuss the future, how Alaska is changing for the better, and about what the ICCAA brings to the community. "This is a hard time for Muslims everywhere; we're trying to build bridges."

We're given a tour of the 14,000-square-foot facility that's still under construction. Understandably, they don't allow us to take pictures because they want their investors and patrons to have the first preview. I suspect that they also may have some security concerns. Our guide tells us that they expect the community center to be completely finished early next year, but adds that they've continually missed deadlines and gone over budget. And it's easy to see why.

Within its walls, no expense is spared on the amenities. Modern tile flooring leads us down a hallway into a large two story prayer hall with gorgeous chandeliers that hang down from a vaulted ceiling. An elevator leads up to a balcony with a glass partition where the women will pray. There is space for classrooms, a childcare center, a game room, and a state-of-the-art kitchen. Towards the front of the building, overlooking the city through massive windows, is another large space that we're told is for non-denominational gatherings. Again, the guide wants to make it abundantly clear that folks of all faiths are always welcome.

The next morning, I sit down with Elvi Gray-Jackson and Dick Traini, the chair and vice chair of the Anchorage Assembly. Under new leadership, local government officials in Anchorage are making it a point to usher diversity into their city. I ask them what types of programs they have in place to promote an inclusive environment for the Muslims there.

"We invite everyone to volunteer for boards and commissions. We don't have a religious test. We'd like folks of all backgrounds to represent different functions—from parks and rec to animal control," Dick says. Dick tells us he's Mormon and Elvi, an African-American, formerly identified as a Jehovah's Witness. Elvi adds that under a recent change in the Anchorage Municipal Code, officials are required to recruit minorities to fill a percentage of the new positions within the municipality to increase representation.

Photo by Shaian Mohammadi

In 2014, Anchorage joined the White House's Welcoming Cities project, as one of the cities around the country that acknowledge the social and cultural contributions of their immigrant and refugee populations through employment opportunities, education, and civic engagement. Proof of this can be seen all over the downtown area, with slogans that say things like, "Welcoming Anchorage," "Stronger Together," or "Eliminate Racism."

Before leaving town, I speak with Staci Feger-Pellesier, the Public Affairs Specialist for the Anchorage Division of the FBI. But only after an awkward encounter in their visitor center in which Shaian is asked if he's carrying a gun or bomb and I'm asked what my purpose in Alaska is. When I say the word "mosque" we are quickly escorted off the premises by armed guards and shadowed all the way to our vehicle.

After returning to my hotel room, I receive a phone call from Staci. Thinking that we're now under investigation and on some government watch list, I'm ultra apologetic to her. I tell her about my meetings with the mosque and how the board cited their close relationship with the FBI. (I later found out that my statement was quickly vetted, because an official from the masjid let us know they were contacted by the feds questioning them to confirm my story.)

I ask her if there have been any prominent threats against the Muslim community in Alaska that she can speak on. She can't comment on any specifics, and states the FBI is not a "first responder" agency, but that they do have a "very active community outreach program." I'm tempted to inquire if this outreach program is the same one that imbeds spies into the mosque, but I don't because I have no intentions of ending up in Gitmo. She points us towards the Anchorage Police Department for additional information. Unsurprisingly, APD declines to comment.

We check out of our hotel room, and since Alaska still has yet to reach an agreement with rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft, I have the hotel hail us a taxi. Moments later, a yellow Dodge Caravan rolls up to the curb, and a tall blonde-hair blue-eyed dude in his mid-to-late-20s hops out to help me load my luggage into the trunk.

On the way to the airport, we make small talk to break the awkward silence. He has a pretty pronounced East Coast accent, so I guess New Jersey. I'm wrong. He tells me he moved to Alaska with his family from Connecticut. He wagers that 70 percent of the residents in Anchorage are from out of town.

"Folks come out here for the peace and quiet. They come here for a change of pace, for something different. But people from Alaska, they can't wait to leave." It's obvious, but I ask him why that is. "Because the winters are long and cold." Could've fooled me. The weather is gorgeous outside. He tells me that beyond the rough climate, Alaska gets a bad rap for its crime, "but the crime here is mostly DUIs and drug abuse." I respond by telling him about the astronomical gun death rate, but also clarify that 80 percent of the gun deaths in Alaska are suicides. The long dark winters take a toll on people, he says.

As we approach the airport, he asks me what I'm doing in his neck of the woods. I'm in town for work, I say. I mention that I'm writing a piece about the growing Muslim community in Alaska, and he gets really quiet. For a very brief moment, I fear that I've opened up a can of bigoted worms, and expect him to say something disparaging about the population.

He looks in the rearview mirror, and with a slightly different inflection says, "You were at the masjid this week? I go every Friday." I know I look confused because he quickly follows up by saying that he practices Islam. No shit, I say. "Yeah, I get that a lot. My family is from Albania, and we came out here to work in the taxi industry." My mind is completely blown.

"Life in Alaska is beautiful, man. It's a blessing everyday we wake up here." It's apparent that more and more Muslim families are feeling that way as they look north to the future.

Follow Dylan Park on Twitter.