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.
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.”
“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.
“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.”