Alaskan Muslims raising the roof of state’s first mosque

The holy land is 6,000 miles away, and for now they worship in a strip mall, but Islamic faithful head to Anchorage

Sam Obeidi, vice president of the Islamic Community Center in Anchorage, stands in the nearly completed mosque.
Brian Adams for Al Jazeera America

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska’s first mosque has risen quietly over the last few years in a gravel lot in a South Anchorage commercial district, a neighbor to a Korean Presbyterian church, a couple of auto repair garages, a drive-through Chinese restaurant and a Sons of Norway hall.

A few weeks ago, Sam Obeidi, vice president of the Islamic Community Center Anchorage Alaska, turned a key and pushed open the mosque’s door, flipping on a light in a hallway that smelled of drywall plaster and new carpet.

Palestinian by birth, Obeidi came to Alaska as a teenager to join his father, a refugee, who settled in Anchorage in the 1960s. In those days, Muslims met and prayed in his father’s home. Obeidi’s family now owns a frame shop and gallery. He has been involved with the mosque-building project for the last five years of an effort that began 15 years ago.

Anchorage Muslims have so far raised $2 million to build the 15,000-square-foot facility, and must raise $1 million more before the prayer hall is completed and two minarets are placed on the mosque’s roof.

The nearly-completed mosque.
Brian Adams for Al Jazeera America


Obeidi walked down the hallway into a large carpeted room, which will someday house a Sunday school. On nice days, its big windows frame a view of Mt. McKinley, and far beyond that, on the other side of the world, is Mecca.

The Islamic holy land may be more than 6,000 miles away, but Anchorage has increasingly become a destination for Muslims, who now number as many as 3,000 in the city, the ICCAA estimates.

The draw is partly economic — Alaska’s economy was barely touched by the recession — and partly connected to waves of government refugee resettlement in Alaska’s largest city. White non-Hispanics now make up just over half the population of Anchorage. The rest is made up of a diverse mix of cultures: Alaska Natives, Pacific Islanders, Asians, Africans and Hispanics. More than 100 languages are spoken in the Anchorage schools.

That striking diversity is amplified among Muslims, who are far more likely to be immigrants and refugees. While many mosques in U.S. cities are tied to a single ethnic group, Friday prayers in Anchorage might draw Gambians, Pakistanis, Albanians, Somalis, Sudanese, Egyptians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Bangladeshis, Burmese, Russians and Malaysians, among others.

“They are white, they are black, they are brown,” Obeidi says.

The ICCAA is for now without an imam and the search for one must be executed carefully, he says, so as not to favor one language or culture over others.

“We want somebody born in this country, raised in this country, who understands our mentality,” Obeidi says.

Anchorage’s Muslim community is one of the most flexible in the United States, he says.

“The reason is diversity,” he says.

Obeidi leads religious talks for city Muslims several times a month. He says he tries to focus on how to lead a successful life in America and “morality, how to change for the better your position in life.”

Because of the growing number of Muslims in Anchorage, there are two prayer times on Friday at the Islamic Community Center.
Brian Adams for Al Jazeera America

Some of the funds to build the mosque came from the local community, but more came from Lower 48 states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois and California. When it is completed, the facility will have room for a school, a large prayer hall, a community room and a library. The floors in the hall will be heated. Women will be able to attend services from a balcony or a private room, depending on the level of privacy they prefer.

Alaska’s mosque is part of an American mosque-building boom, meant to keep pace with the fast growth of the Muslim community. The Muslim population is expected to more than double, increasing from 2.6 million, or 0.8 percent of the total population, to 6.2 million, or 1.7 percent of total, by 2030, due to high birth rates and immigration, according to a report from the Pew Center for Religion and Public Life. That will make Muslims as common as Episcopalians or Jews are today.

As they await the completion of the mosque, many Anchorage Muslims gather to pray in a discreetly marked storefront in a strip mall near a dance school, a karate studio and a Filipino church. There are so many people that two prayer services must be held to accommodate everyone.

Lamin Jobarteh, president of the ICCAA, in the halal grocery he operates in Anchorage.
Brian Adams for Al Jazeera America

Lamin Jobarteh, originally from Gambia, is the president of the ICCAA. He operates a halal grocery across the mall parking lot from the storefront mosque. The origins of his inventory stretch across the globe, from bags of the grain teff to suit the tastes of his Sudanese customers to Middle Eastern spices and Pakistani sweets. On a recent afternoon his phone rang with the kind of call he and Obeidi routinely receive.

“Asalamu alaykum,” Jobarteh said, pausing to listen. “No, no, I don’t speak Arabic.”

Another pause.

“I cannot answer that question for you, if it is a hard life or a good life in Alaska.”

Both he and Obeidi are careful about encouraging people to move to Anchorage, where the cost of living is high. They advise callers to have work and people they know who can take care of them and help them get settled.

Leading a Muslim community like Anchorage’s requires a balancing act of respect for cultures, but also culling cultural practices from religious obligations. Islam’s tenets are universal, Jobarteh says. Culture, though, influences how people practice, and there are sometimes differences between ethnic groups leaders must navigate.

One of the larger divisions among Anchorage congregants has been around the timing of prayers. Prayer and religious fasting should be dictated by

sunset and sunrise, but in Alaska those timetables vary wildly between winter and summer. In the summer, the sun never sets completely. In the heart of winter, sunrise and sunset are separated by only five and a half hours.    

The ICCAA consulted a religious scholar, who told them it would be permissible to fast and pray according to Mecca time. Some Muslims in Anchorage, however, continue to follow the local time. ICCAA accommodates them as well.

“The mosque is always open,” Jobarteh says.

The new mosque will share a parking lot with the Presbyterian church next door, and it has so far been well received by its neighbors, although once, before the building was constructed, someone anonymously left a number of Bibles on the lot. The community donated them to a church.

Heather Robertson Barbour is an immigration attorney and convert to Islam who grew up outside of Cleveland. She functions occasionally as a media spokesperson for the Islamic community. Her husband, Youssef Barbour, a doctor, gives religious talks, alternating with Obeidi.

Barbour, who wears a hijab when in public, says that she has found Anchorage to be a tolerant city.

Heather Robertson Barbour, an immigration attorney in Anchorage, finds Anchorage to be a city tolerant of Muslims.
Brian Adams for Al Jazeera America


“I kind of have to remind myself that this is a conservative state. People have this attitude [that] if you’re not hurting anything, then to each his own,” she says.

Alaska has many strong Christian congregations, but like other Western states, it is among the least churchgoing in the country, according to Pew.

Jobarteh often imagines the time when the mosque is complete. The Islamic community, he says, will invite the public to tour it. It will be open to anyone with curiosity about Islam. They will reach out to religious people, politicians, the mayor, the police, the FBI, he says. Everybody will be welcome.

“We are all Americans,” he said. “This community center belongs to all of us.”

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