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UPDATE (Wednesday, February 22, 2017): This story has been update to clarify one of Eman Beshtawii’s comments concerning President Donald Trump’s executive order of January 27, 2017.
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Open. Inviting. Welcoming.
Those three words describe the people and the atmosphere inside Al Hedaya Islamic Center, the mosque on Mt Pleasant Road in Newtown.
“It is important that everyone is comfortable,” Eman Beshtawii said recently. The founder and director of the center, Ms Beshtawii said it is important that everyone, whether regular attendees or guests and visitors, knows they have choices and options when they visit.
Head scarves are encouraged for women, but are not mandatory.
The removal of shoes upon entering is very much encouraged, however. Baskets and shelves just inside the front door offer a place to put footwear. Many regular attendees have thick socks or slippers for their feet. Rugs cover most floors, but the tiled entryway does provide a jolt to the system during the winter months when bare or stockinged feet first touch it.
Inside the small building, a former doctor’s office, guests will not find pressure to convert to the religion that claims 1.6 billion devoted followers around the globe.
“Oh no,” Ms Beshtawii said recently, laughing. “We are similar to most faiths in that we want people to learn about us. Read about us, and read what we believe. Believe in one God.”
Reading the Quran, the central religious text of Islam, is easy. Al Hedaya gladly offers free copies to anyone who would like one.
“Come in,” she encouraged. “Get to know who we are.”
Ms Beshtawii is quick to point out that even the Quran tells Muslims it is not up to them to convert others.
“We don’t have anything in our religion where we are required to go and change the religion of others,” she said. “It’s clear in the Quran, there is one verse in the Quran that says: ‘no conversion.’ It’s not up to us to go change people.”
One of the first things people are asked when they begin talking to Al Hedaya about converting, she said, is “Are you sure?”
Ms Beshtawii formed Al Hedaya in the wake of 9/11. After a group of Muslim women living in the Danbury area decided they wanted to make sure their children fully understood their religion, they began meeting. They formed The Muslim Society of Greater Danbury in July 2009, and began meeting in the Beshtawii home.
That group eventually grew to more than 70 children strong, Ms Beshtawii said recently. By 2011, the group began renting one or two buildings at 115 Mt Pleasant Road, using it for education, worship space, and public programs. A second building on the property will be transformed into the permanent location within the next year.
In recent weeks, more visitors have been showing up at Al Hedaya to join regular attendees for prayer services.
About 100 people attended Jumu’ah (Friday) Prayer Service on February 10. Nearly 70 men and women sat in chairs, or sat or knelt on the floor where Hassan Kadhim led the afternoon’s service. A few rows of chairs near the back of the room quickly filled. As additional worshippers arrived during the service, they found space on the floor. All faced to the east.
Another 30-plus women sat — by their choice, not because they were required to — in a second, adjacent room for the service, which celebrated diversity.
“Think about diversity,” Hassan Kadhim said Friday afternoon. “Think about all the colors and languages that make us unique.”
And yet, with all of these things that make people around the world unique, he said, “throughout history, people have struggled to accept differences in each other.”
As he spoke, children were allowed to wander in and out of the worship space.
“Children have no struggle,” Kadhim continued. “They have no problem with differences. It’s adults who usually install these filters and start problems.”
Regular attendees regularly use the word community to describe the Al Hedaya and its offerings.
Former Newtown resident Rachel Faust, who now lives with her husband and family in Danbury, regularly attends services and events at the Islamic Center.
“We find guidance here,” she said February 10. “Men and women come together to learn about their faith. It is very much like a community here.
“We have always been open to the public,” she added.
Hanaa McDermott of Waterbury, who also attends events at the Islamic Center, agreed.
“We interact, we get advice from one another,” said Ms McDermott, who converted her faith two years ago.
“The days of us being on the sidelines are no more.
“Like any other religion,” she added, “you’re not going to learn everything all in one day. The best things for anyone to do is to come here, sit, and listen. Ask questions.”
Yet while those who consider themselves members of or regularly attend events at Newtown’s one mosque feel happy among themselves, life in this upper Fairfield County town is not always easy for those who are Muslim.
Not Always Easy
“Go back to where you came from!”
“Your father took my father’s job.”
“You’re a suicide bomber, aren’t you?”
Ms Beshtawii and her children have heard all of this, and more.
“My son was bullied. Somebody on the bus told him ‘We’re going to get guns and kill you.’
“After we contacted the police, they visited one child’s home and found a handgun, unsecured,” Ms Beshtawii said this week. The incident on the bus, she said, took place while her son was in elementary school.
“That frightens me,” she said. “I was scared. We took them out, out of fear for their safety.”
The Beshtawiis decided to homeschool their children in 2012. All four children stopped attending Newtown’s public schools.
Shortly after 12/14, however, the couple decided their children would return to the public education forum.
“We put them back into the schools because they became active with groups,” Ms Beshtawii said. Her son Muad, she pointed out, became involved in PeaceBuilders, a post-12/14 initiative that brought kids from Newtown together in community service and fun activities. He also joined Children of Newtown, a youth choir organized and directed by Jim Allyn. The group performed “My Beautiful Town,” written by Mr Allyn, during a Service of Hope and Healing held at Newtown Congregational Church in January 2013.
“We all attended different houses of worship, in and around towns,” Ms Beshtawii said. “We were involved in this community.”
Unfortunately, when Muad Beshtawii was a student at Newtown High School, the bullying began again, his mother said.
“My son is smart, and younger than many others in his class,” Ms Beshtawii said. “So others teased him.”
There were plenty of verbal assaults. Ms Beshtawii’s son was called names that cannot be printed in a family newspaper. There were also physical interactions.
“My son was hit by another student,” she said. “We pulled him out of school again. The main reason was bullying.”
Rachel Faust said it is always challenging for parents to instill confidence in their children. The mother of four, she pointed out an ongoing dilemma.
“You can tell your kids they’re beautiful, and smart, and strong, and everything that’s good,” she said. “But if you’re a kid, and your friends are saying mean, derogatory things, what are you as a kid going to feel and believe?”
Ms Beshtawii said she felt some support from the school system. In general, she said, residents of Newtown have also been very supportive of her and her family.
“The town has been very supportive of us, and the schools are very supportive,” she said. “I don’t say ‘Oh the school didn’t take it seriously,’” she continued, referring to incidents involving her children. “The school actually, and the teachers, were very supportive.
“I just think there are two things: we have to think about bullying, not only for the Muslim kids, but bullying of kids of different needs, disabilities, color, gender, whatever it is. And they have to find a program that will really work for these kids.”
By 2014, Ms Beshtawii and her husband decided it was time for their children to be homeschooled again.
“Unfortunately, due to the political environment that we have, some Muslim kids get to be more into focus,” she said. “My son, most of the time, was being bullied by kids just being mean.”
Kristin Fuller, who converted to Muslim about five years ago and is called Basimah by her Muslim brothers and sisters, regularly attends services at Al Hedaya Islamic Center. She coordinates the learning community at Al Hedaya, which educates children from age 2 to sixth grade. She is also supervising Muad Beshtawii’s education.
Ms Beshtawii says she continues to feel support from most people she meets and interacts with in Newtown. She admits to also feeling prejudged at times too.
“Unfortunately, the first thing people think of with Muslim women is oppression,” she said. “They think maybe we don’t have education, but Muslims are very educated women — in Jordan, even more so than boys.”
Ms Beshtawii’s family is from Jordan, where women are forced, she said, to get high education.
“A minimum of a bachelor’s degree,” she said.
But what is expected of her in her country of birth has not translated over to America.
“I think in general it’s not very easy to walk around and be identified as Muslim,” Ms Beshtawii said. While she does not always wear flowing gowns, she does always wear a full fabric head covering, or hajib. That is the most obvious outward sign of her faith.
“I don’t know what people think if they see me, just driving with my kids, the car behind me, are they crazy or not?” she said.
But she continues to wear her hajib.
“For me, it’s more than my civil rights. It’s my religious rights,” she said. “Nobody should be scared because they practice their belief in this country.”
On January 27, one week after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, he signed Executive Order 13769. Among other points, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States” banned residents of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for at least 90 days.
While there has been push-and-pull concerning that particular order since its institution, many families are still affected while politicians determine just how strict they are going to be, especially for those who are well-established United States citizens.
With government agencies still unsure of their new duties and expectations under Executive Order 13769, and a growing number of Americans showing discontent and increasingly open contempt toward Muslim men and women, Ms Beshtawii and others say there is a feeling of unease among Muslims of all ages. She rattles off story after story of friends and acquaintances who have been affected already by that executive order — a teacher at Al Hedaya who needed to travel to Canada for work, but still had concerns that he would not be allowed to return to the area; a medical doctor in Cleveland who visited her family in the Sudan, who was then sent to Saudi Arabia and detained for nine hours before being allowed to return to her home in Ohio.
“We all care about security of the country,” Ms Beshtawii said, “but this is not right.”
The President’s executive order, Ms Beshtawii points out, was premised on the view that Muslims are dangerous to the United States.
“He might be thinking of the September 11 hijackers,” Ms Beshtawii said. “But not even one of the people of the majority Muslims country came over for 9/11.”
Kristin Fuller, a former corporate attorney, pointed out that the president’s executive order seemed to offer a caveat to those who do not identify with what she calls “the majority religion.”
“Basically the order was clear,” said Ms Fuller, “in that it said ‘If you’re a Muslim, don’t come here.’ But if you’re Christian, or something else, then you’re welcome to walk around.”
Ms Beshtawii sees concern among fellow Muslims.
“There is real fear,” Ms Beshtawii said. “Real fear from people who could hurt you, and hurt your family, just by seeing you as a Muslim.”
For that reason, she said, many Muslim women are being forced to take off their hajibs.
“In high school, and college, parents do not feel comfortable sending their daughters to schools,” she said. “This is part of us, but out of personal security and fear, some of them feel this way.”
She feels people look at her, and other Muslim women, and think they are oppressed.
“I don’t know why they think this, maybe it’s because of what they see on the news — a suppressed woman, forced to something; and images of a man beating a woman, or some kind of isolated incident where a woman is otherwise covering her face.”
Those are the images that stay in people’s heads, she fears, and it is those thoughts that she and other local Muslims would love to offer a counterpoint to.
“I think they look at us and think ‘That poor woman, she has no freedom,’” she continued. “There is no much not understanding of who we are.”
“Contact with a real life person is important to the community,” she said.
She and her husband spoke recently about rumors heard from other Muslims, where men and women were being encouraged to make copies of their passports in order to prove their citizenship upon demand.
“We were thinking ‘Is it time to make copies of ours to prove our citizenship upon demand?’
“But we are thinking it’s not in Connecticut,” she said. “I hope not.”
A Place Of Faith And Refuge
Eman Beshtawii said people find a very diverse membership among those in Al Hedaya Islamic Center.
“There is such diversity, with people from so many different countries, and careers,” she said.
Al Hedaya Islamic Center has plans to build a permanent mosque. The community has demolished part of a building on its property, and plans to build on to what still stands, to create its future home that will have a very traditional look to it, according to plans displayed inside the current center.
“We’re just waiting for the weather to get better,” Ms Beshtawii said February 14. “We’re waiting for possibly April to pour the foundation. We can’t do anything until we do that.”
There are currently no signs announcing the location of Al Hedaya Islamic Center. Those will be put into place once the new building is in use.
Until then, prayer services and activities continue in the smaller building.
“Islam is about religion,” said Ms Beshtawii. “People need to accept that it’s a large religion.
“A lot of people are confused, thinking it’s a place, or an ethnicity,” she said. “Not all of us have darker skin. Not all Muslims are from the Middle East.
“Visit a mosque,” she said. “Visit a mosque in your area, and meet the people in person.”
Al Hedaya Islamic Center, 115 Mt Pleasant Road, hosts Jumu’ah (Friday) Prayer Service each Friday at 1:15. All are welcome to attend. To learn more, visit the center, call 203-304-1244, or visit hedayacenter.org.