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2/6/17 – WBEZ 91.5 FM: An American Mosque: Blending 7th century revelations with Midwest Suburbia

Originally published by WBEZ 91.5 FM

By Monique Parsons

Thirty miles southwest of downtown Chicago, in a village where suburban sprawl and farmland coexist, sits a scaled-down version of Jerusalem’s iconic Dome of the Rock.

The Prayer Center of Orland Park, one of the most popular mosques in Illinois, overlooks a two-lane highway and a soybean field near a southwest edge of the village. But convincing Midwest suburbia to approve the construction of a mosque down the street from a Catholic cemetery and a Costco was a challenge.

The men who built this mosque a decade ago set out to create what they called a “model mosque” — a blueprint for what an American Muslim house of worship could be. Along the way they encountered resistance from local residents, a shooting, turnover in leadership and a renewed distrust in Muslim Americans.

The congregation knows some people distrust Muslims; Donald Trump’s election seemed to be a reminder of that. But when Orland Park became one of the few areas to vote for Trump in Democratic Cook County, this congregation again found themselves on uncertain ground in an America that can often feel hostile to their faith.

The mosque’s founders, Mohamed Krad and Malik Ali, met in 2003 and are now close friends. But Krad, a soft-spoken doctor, and Ali, the man who once owned the rights to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” couldn’t be more different.

Krad immigrated from Syria in the mid-1970s and became a doctor. He initially bought the land in Orland Park to build a home for his wife and eight children. He said he then had a dream telling him to instead use the land for a mosque.

But to actually build a mosque he needed someone with local connections and business savvy. He needed Ali.

The son of Palestinian immigrants, Ali grew up in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. He and his brother started MPI Media Group, which produces low-budget horror movies and owns the distribution rights to classic TV shows and films.

“We started with nothing,” Krad said. “It was an idea, it was a need, it was a community need, but we didn’t have a single dollar.”

What they did have was a shared vision for a 21st century American mosque, with its heart in a 7th century religious revelation and its head in Chicago’s suburbs.

The men knew that turning their dream into a reality wasn’t a quick process. They understood that many saw Islam as a foreign faith, despite its long history in the United States. In 2000, they saw protests derail a plan for a new mosque in nearby Palos Heights. The mosque leaders were viewed as outsiders, and local politicians weren’t on their side.

Krad and Ali didn’t want to make the same mistakes, so they hired lawyers and planners, studied zoning regulations and worked closely with the mayor and other local officials. They were wary of accusations that foreign interests controlled American mosques, so they made sure they had American-born citizens on the mosque board and turned to local donors — 900 of them gave $4 million in two years.

“Not one red cent came from overseas, and we were very, very careful about that,” Ali said. “For a mosque to succeed, it has to be from the community.”

Their proposal came less than three years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and suspicion of Muslim Americans still ran high. In Orland Park, some residents accepted having Muslim neighbors, but thought building a mosque was going too far.

Hundreds of people protested at three contentious hearings, but the village board eventually voted unanimously to greenlight the mosque on June 21, 2004.

They’d won a place in the religious landscape, but they’d also seen a side of their neighbors many hadn’t encountered before.

Krad wanted to build a mosque for a young and tolerant community that focused on study and good citizenship. A place with plenty of parking, inspiring programs and a great website. A place that engaged with its neighbors and stood up to bigotry.

The mosque, which opened in June 2006, cost $4 million and took more than a year to build. It featured white walls, tall arched windows, and red prayer carpets on the women’s side and blue on the men’s side. The basement has windows and flat screen TVs for women and children to watch the action upstairs.

Then, on March 25, 2014, came a reminder that after nearly 10 years in Orland Park, not everyone was accepting.

On that morning, the mosque was damaged when somebody opened fire on the dome as about 30 people gathered inside for prayer.

Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy — a former Secret Service agent who took a bullet for President Ronald Reagan during a 1981 assassination attempt in Washington D.C. — said investigators first thought the bullet was a stray shot from a hunter. Police later determined the shot was probably from a sniper aiming at the mosque from atop a neighboring building. Nobody has ever been charged.

Mosque member Manel Saleh said her father was one of the people praying inside that morning. He later told her that he wasn’t afraid, and that a sniper wouldn’t scare him away.

Saleh said her children were attending preschool at the mosque. She said it comforted her to see an Orland Park police officer in the parking lot every morning for the rest of the school year.

The bullet is still trapped inside the layers of the copper dome, and the bullet holes can still be seen from inside the main prayer hall. Ali said it’s too expensive to rent scaffolding, and it’s not worth fishing it out.