A wide range of speciality products geared towards Muslims at Tayeeb Grocerey. Photo by Steve Silva.

Islam in Iowa

They came for a goat.

At a farm outside Kalona, Iowa, two Egyptian Muslim professionals from Iowa City stood facing an old Amish farmer and his son. The farmer, in plain clothes, didn’t know what to make of the Egyptian men at first but he knew there was money involved. The Muslim men wanted a goat, slaughtered halal, for their families. There was no goat that day but the men bought eggs and promised to return. As they drove away, gravel skittering behind them, the old Amish farmer stroked his beard and murmured about how much the world had changed.

These are stories about people crossing borders: of religion, of culture, of nationality and of identity. They take place in Iowa, a state of often overlooked diversity and home to the oldest established Muslim population in the United States.

A study published last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and conducted by a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that nearly half of Americans have a negative view of Islam, a percentage that has doubled in the six years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

But at the same time that public opinion of Islam among Americans has dramatically turned negative, a renewed interest in the study of Islam and the Muslim world has taken root — and not just in academia, where Islamic studies programs are booming. Muslims in the United States that had long ago assimilated into this country’s secular culture are renewing their faith, taking up regular prayer, and reconnecting with their Mosque community.

Still Islam itself continues to be seen as a threat in this country.

As Eastern Iowa discovered during public discussions about the creation of a permanent home for the Muslim Youth Camps of America in North Liberty, it is not always easy to separate justified concerns about Islam from irrational fears.

In the past half-decade, many U.S. Muslims have responded to the need for inter-religious dialogue by being more public about their faith.

Iowa Muslims have served in the American Armed Forces as early as World War II. In the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they fight alongside their American comrades against members of their own faith.

The Muslim influence has also been felt on the Iowa food market, which has seen an upswing in demand for halal products: chicken, lamb, goat, and beef slaughtered and blessed in accordance with Islamic law. This is ironic in a state known for having more hogs per capita than any other.

But the challenges Muslims face in Iowa are far from just dietary. As a drop-off point for war refugees of all stripes, Eastern Iowa offers fertile soil for immigrants hoping to rebuild shattered lives.

Many of them are living on the edges of mainstream America; many are navigating that grey area between assimilation and dissimilation.

Some Muslims in Iowa adhere to particular sects. Some have come to the faith in the past half-decade. Others have long ago given up the practice.

And then there are those whose journeys have been spiritual ones — Americans converts called to Islam and, in some cases, from Islam to Christianity.

For a nation that publicly prides itself on its religious tolerance, most faiths in this country are expressed privately. Rarely do the rituals and practices of religion seep into contemporary commercial life.

Not so with Islam, which many Muslims call a “full body experience” — a ritualistic and legalistic faith that prescribes rules and practices for everyday life.

Traditionally, Islam has known no barriers between commerce, community, identity and faith — these boundaries are also absent among Iowa Muslims, and in many cases among Iowans of all faiths.

But as with all Americans, Muslims in Iowa are given the freedom to embrace and interpret that faith on their own terms.

These 15 articles offer a snapshot of individuals, organizations and businesses doing just that — Muslims whose everyday interactions with the mainstream may border on the mundane, but whose voices have gained new salience in the heart of a country at war with those who use Islam to wreak indiscriminate havoc worldwide.