What Are Iowa's Muslims Thinking As They Turn Up to Caucus? A Lot of Different Things

How members of America's most feared religion deal with America's craziest political process.

For what it's worth, Donald Trump has squandered the Muslim vote in Iowa this year.

Obviously all the scare-mongering around Muslims appeals to a broader base of perpetually fed-up conservatives, and polls show that their votes are probably enough for Trump to win the caucus on Monday. But in the "ground game" phase of Iowa caucus season, when campaigns fight tooth and nail for every last vote, it's easy to imagine a campaign manager on the verge of defeat in one precinct or another, pausing for a split-second to question the wisdom of reducing an entire religious group to collateral damage.

On April 7 of last year Trump was in Des Moines, Iowa, to strategize with Iowa Campaign manager Chuck Laudner. It was also Muslim Day at the Capitol building in Des Moines. Miriam Amer, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Iowa, was there that day, and watched as Trump strode through the building and rebuffed an offer of a free halal lunch with what seemed to be a scowl, but could easily have been Trump's neutral expression.

Photo courtesy of Miriam Amer/CAIR Iowa

CAIR Iowa President Lisa Killinger went after Trump, Amer told me. "She introduced herself. He had pictures taken with her and another woman wearing a Somali headscarf. He was fairly pleasant," she said.

The following month, Trump came back to Iowa for the 2015 National Security Summit. This time he spouted some wildly inaccurate remarks about Muslim Syrians entering the country more easily than Christian Syrians, and the speech sowed the seeds of one of the centerpieces of his campaign: a ban on Muslim immigration.

It was Ben Carson who spoke out against the possibility of a Muslim president, and called dangerous Syrian refugees "mad dogs," but Trump is the frontrunner, and he's got a myriad of serious policy proposals that affect Muslim Americans.

In Trump's words, it's time for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." He also supports a database of Muslims. He thinks Muslims should be profiled by suspicious neighbors. Also, a Justice Department under President Trump would likely be tasked with carrying out surveillance of "certain mosques."

It goes without saying that his remarks have mostly alienated him from American Muslims. But Iowa happens to be among the 20 states where Islam is the largest non-Christian religion. Bolstered by the presence of a large number of Bosnian refugees who arrived under President Bill Clinton, Iowa now has more Muslims than Jews. It's also one of only seven states with a Muslim in its state legislature.

But that doesn't mean they all vote the same way. "People think of Muslims as one big monolithic mass of people," Amer said. "We're individuals." Indeed, I searched for the political conscience of Muslims in Iowa, and apart from opposition to Trump, they were all over the place.

"The Republican Party is a party of faith, safety, and security. I am, to be honest, a registered Republican because of these values," Imam Taha Tawil told me over tea and dates in the meeting hall below the Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Mother Mosque is the oldest continually operating mosque in the United States, and the first building in the US built specifically to be a mosque. It holds a spot in the National Registry of Historic Places.

Imam Taha, in the Mother Mosque's prayer room

Tawil has a gentle tone of voice, a wise-man inflection, and a tendency to steer the conversation toward spiritual aphorisms—as any imam should. But he's also an Iowan, meaning he's willing to talk politics at the drop of a hat, as long as you don't ask him to endorse a particular candidate. It doesn't sound like he'll be caucusing for a certain billionaire TV personality. Tawil called Trump a "great man," and praised his charisma and business acumen, but then added, "he just has some bad ideas."

As a Palestinian born in Jerusalem in the 1950s, Tawil told me he was forced from the city and into Shuafat Refugee Camp in 1967. "I know what occupation is. I know subjugation. When Trump talks about camps, I know where it leads, and that's not America," he told me.

Tawil wants to tell all of this to Trump in person. He went to great lengths to invite the candidate over for a meeting—a reasonable request since Trump's whistle-stop tour of Iowa brought him within 1.3 miles of the Mother Mosque. The national media helped him publicize the invitation, but it went unheeded.

Tawil sees Trump's snub as a shame most of all because he has a vision for the Republicans. "The Republican party needs to rejuvenate and restructure itself. It needs to embrace instead of alienating."

But while the loss of loyal Republicans like Tawil might be costly to an individual candidate on Monday night, the loss of another group could be even costlier during the general election in this swing state: centrist Muslim Iowans.

Hassan Igram

According to Hassan Igram, president and CEO of Cedar Graphics, a giant printing facility in Hiawatha, Iowa, "Muslims by nature tend to be more conservative." But this year, Igram feels torn between Democrat Martin O'Malley and Republican John Kasich. He was impressed by a Bernie Sanders rally, but he called the Vermont Senator, "a little too left for my taste."

Igram, a third generation Iowan who sounds like actor Stanley Tucci when he speaks, said in the past he has voted for George W. Bush, and caucused for Ron Paul. Conservatives tend to be more his speed, because he's a businessman, but he told me he had voted for Democrats in the past as well.

This year, though, all the Islamophobia troubles him. "It's one thing for the media, especially the right-wing media, to bash Muslims," he told me. "Right now, everybody's paying attention to the politicians and what they're saying when they focus their campaign on fear-mongering."

The roots of Iowa's Muslim community are Syrian and Lebanese, which made it something of a personal affront to Igram when Republican Governor Terry Branstad blocked Syrian refugees from entering Iowa. "We were going to accept 600 Syrians. They were going to be here last month. We got clothing and furniture—you name it—for them. The governor slammed the door shut because of what happened in San Bernardino," Amer told me.

So Igram says he confronted Branstad in person about it, and "really worked him over." At a reception for business leaders on January 4, Igram recalls railing about the economic drawbacks of closing Iowa off to refugees. "Our community has been extremely productive, and our history is known to everyone. You're afraid one bad apple is going to come in," he says he told the governor.

"Unfortunately ISIS has found a way to sabotage us," Igram added, his tone changing slightly. "Fear is somewhat justified because it's happened."

Iowa, though, has not seen a terrorist attack. Members of Iowa's Muslim community like Almardi Abdalla, a social worker and expert in terrorism and national security, was eager to point out to the Des Moines Register earlier this month that Muslims in Des Moines police themselves for radicalization.

Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids

What seems to be Iowa's single brush with terrorist activity occurred in the weeks just after 9/11. Youssef Hmimssa was a Moroccan immigrant based in Detroit who was busted as part of a terror probe in Cedar Rapids 18 days after the deadliest terror attack in US history. He had only lived in Cedar Rapids for a few months. Hmimssa wound up being a witness in the terrorist case, and was only charged with credit card fraud. I asked the local chapter of the FBI if it could point me toward any other Islamic terror-related events in Iowa. Its representative said anything considered public information would be on the FBI website. There was nothing else.

I also asked Ahmed Souaiaia, a professor of religious studies at the University of Iowa, if there was any sign of Islamic extremism in Iowa, and he explained that the Islamic State appeals to members of the Wahhabis sect or believers in Salafi jihadism, which aren't typically part of the conversation in your friendly neighborhood mosque. "I must say that I am not aware of any ISIL influenced Wahhabis or Salafis in the area," Souaiaia told me in an email.

Still, Igram says it's natural for the community to be a little paranoid when someone in the Muslim community seems like his or her beliefs are becoming extreme. "Before 9/11, I wouldn't have thought much of it," but, he imagined what would happen if the next San Bernardino were planned in his backyard. "If he comes from Cedar Rapids, all of a sudden we're harboring terrorists."

Imam Hassan Selim, the Egyptian-born head holy man of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids, just became an American citizen last year. This is the first time he'll get to participate in Iowa's odd form of democracy, and he picked a weird year to jump into the fray.

"To be honest, I'm confused," he told me when I asked if he was ready to caucus. "I need to have a crash course on how it works. My wife is American by birth. She's lived here her entire life, and she's been politically active, so she teaches me how the whole thing works," he said. "I'm kind of set on who I'm not going to vote for. So that limits my options and makes it easy for me," he added, playing the clergy card and keeping his specific choice to himself.

Living in Egypt during the three-decade reign of Hosni Mubarak, Selim didn't grow up with things like participatory democracy or political dissent. But he says political discourse existed. "I can make the argument that it's more mature than what's here," he told me. Egyptians, he said, used to discuss "real issues that affect everyone, no matter your race religion ethnicity or background. What's really taken into consideration is the wellbeing and future of the country, and economic progress," he said.

The Mother Mosque of America

He was frustrated by how often he turns on the news and sees the conversations reduced to the absolute rudiments. "You only hear people saying 'Oh, we need to get rid of the Muslims, and we need to keep our guns,' and those are the only things being said." But he prefers the US, because arguing in Egypt, he said, is, "not really productive in the sense that it can really reflect real life."

But while the campaign might be fomenting paranoia about their religion, no one I spoke to seemed to be trembling in fear about any possible outcome of the election. Igram said nothing the candidates said to get through the caucus season, not even the "hatred" and "fear-mongering," were likely to have any effect at all. "The rhetoric is absolutely meaningless," he said.

Amer relished the thought of it all being over. "They're going to be licking their wounds. And we'll go back to being what we were before the elections, and the last reporter who leaves Iowa after the caucuses, please turn out the lights."

Meanwhile, Imam Tawil seems to relish his role in the democratic process. "I do my best to show the best face of Muslims in Iowa. We are very important," he told me. "I may find a better job somewhere else, but without the people, the love, the cooperation, the respect, it's not worth it," he said.

"It may not be a famous place like the big cities, but we are Iowans, and we're proud of it."

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