Catonsville Islamic Society members reflect on president's visit

"We're comfortable wearing our faith on our sleeves in Catonsville."

About a month ago, Danette Zaghari-Mask recalls, a woman walked through the doors of the Catonsville-based Islamic Society of Baltimore with her young daughter in tow.

She came because while at a park earlier, some Muslim women from Catonsville walked past them wearing head scarves, and her daughter had grabbed her.

"Don't go near those people, Mom — they're dangerous," she said, according to Zaghari-Mask, a teacher at the mosque.

Hearing that, she decided she would bring her child to the Islamic Society of Baltimore's mosque on Johnnycake Road.

"She was so shocked her daughter had those feelings; she didn't know where they originated. She said kids at her school had told her that," Zaghari-Mask said. "We embraced her. We were really happy to see her."

The girl helped the mosque's Girl Scout troop, No. 223, put together care packages for needy families. Seeing that Muslims are ordinary people took away the girl's fear, Zaghari-Mask said.

"It's no fault of her daughter, but unfortunately that's a fact of our society, those are the times we're living in," Zaghari-Mask said. "People in Catonsville are in a fortunate position."

That's because they have the largest mosque in Maryland in their community. It may not be the largest building, but it has nearly 3,000 congregants.

"People in Catonsville, if they want to learn about what Muslims do, what they believe, they can just get in their car and in five minutes they can learn about that," Zaghari-Mask said. "It feels like a small town with a really big, bright mosque."

President Barack Obama came to the mosque Feb. 3, held a roundtable discussion with community leaders and spoke about the Muslim community in America. In his speech he rejected political rhetoric and violence directed at Muslims, and talked about the role Islam has played in American history.

"We're one American family," Obama said. "And when any part of our family starts to feel separate or second-class or targeted, it tears at the very fabric of our nation."

Edmund Tori, a member of the advisory board of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, was part of the roundtable with the president. Tori moved to Catonsville in 2004, for work and to be close to the mosque.

Catonsville's Muslim community is very diverse, he said. When he is inside the mosque praying, he never knows whom he'll be next to.

"There are small business owners, there are physicians, lawyers, engineers, teachers, health care leaders," he said. "You could be next to a janitor or a CEO — the diversity is just incredible."

Tori also chose the area because of the education services the Islamic Society of Baltimore offers. The mosque has a primary school that includes 350 students, in addition to classes for new Muslims and classes to help children memorize the Quran, which is written in Arabic.

On Jan. 28 mosque officials learned that there was a possibility Obama would visit. The plan was official two days later.

Leading up to the event, members of the mosque prepared, getting the facility in top shape for the visit. Some didn't go to work for three or four days.

Speaking with the president at the roundtable was actually the calmest part of the week for Tori.

"The least stressful time of the blur of days was the hour and 20 minutes I spent with him at the roundtable," Tori said.

Because of their preparation, the visit went very smoothly, according to Tori and volunteer Zubair Ansari, also from Catonsville. One hiccup was a Secret Service agent losing his shoes, which he removed to enter a prayer hall. With so many black shoes, it is likely his were simply taken by accident.

"We're going to send him shoes," Ansari said.

During the visit, Zaghari-Mask's daughter got to greet Obama, she said. She said it meant a lot to her for the president to visit their mosque, particularly in the face of hate speech directed at the community, which she attributed to the presidential election this fall. Obama came to a mosque to start conversations about those subjects in towns like Catonsville, she said.

"This particular election has been very nasty. Whatever's going on in the general society pours into schools, so our kids get exposed to it," she said. "For the president of the United States to come to their town and to their mosque, and to stand in front of them and tell them that he's compassionate toward them, and that they are Muslim and American ... they had a very positive reaction to it, so as a hometown mom I'm grateful for that gesture."

Despite anti-Muslim prejudice nationally, Zaghari-Mask, Tori and Ansari all said they feel welcome in Catonsville. At places like basketball practice and at work, people offered their support even before Obama came to town.

"We're comfortable wearing our faith on our sleeves in Catonsville," Ansari said.

The Islamic Society of Baltimore offers a variety of services to the non-Muslim community as well, including a free health clinic. On Wednesdays after school the mosque opens its gymnasium and basketball courts to the general public.

"People who have no relationship to ISB, they're more than welcome to come and play basketball, do arts, hang out indoors during the cold weather," Ansari said. "That's a really neat thing that you won't find in a lot of American communities."

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