Muslim Imam: ‘We Feel That We Are American’

By Mary Onishi

“Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon was blasting through my car’s speakers when I pulled up to the Islamic Center of the South Plains, one of two mosques in Lubbock.

I walked into the quiet entrance of the mosque where I was asked to slip off my Chuck Taylors and leave them on the tile floor with the other shoes.

Samer Altabaa, the imam of the Islamic Center of the South Plains, was sitting behind his desk when I walked into the office that he said he has worked in for seven years. We shook hands in our socks.

Imam Samer Altabaa holding a open a Quran. Mary Onishi/The Hub@TTU

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Altabaa said he studied to become an imam in Syria, where he was born. He and his wife moved to the United States in 2000 and came to Lubbock in 2010. He said he has been an imam for 19 years now.

“I just remembered the day that I graduated,” he said, laughing. “Time flies.”

Altabaa said his job is to lead prayer and provide guidance in Islam. He said he also gives talks, facilitates marriage counseling, provides classes and solves problems within the community. He said it is not an easy job, but he believes it is a holy job.

The imam said his days start early in the morning for fajr, the sunrise prayer, and end after isha, the night prayer.

Altabaa said Lubbock has been very welcoming to the Muslim community during his years as an imam. He said he believes the large population of college students living in Lubbock is one of the main reasons for the open-minded environment.

President of the Muslim Student Association at Texas Tech University, Isha Steadman, said her experience as a Muslim student has been a positive one so far.

“Lubbock is a pretty accepting community,” she said. “A lot of people, especially on campus, are pretty open to learning about new religion.”

Steadman said an example of how Texas Tech has accommodated Muslim students is through the placement of washing stations in the Student Union Building bathrooms. Students can wash themselves according to Islam practice before praying at a designated cubicle in the SUB.

“They’re just college students, you know?” she said.

Imam Altabaa said discrimination against the Muslim community in Lubbock has manifested itself in individual incidents. He said an example of an incident was when the mosque closest to Texas Tech campus was vandalized last year.

Steadman said members of the Muslim Student Association approached her with concerns about being public with their religion, especially the female students who wear hijabs, after Donald Trump was elected.

“I’m kind of like loud and proud,” she said.

Steadman said she does not understand why Americans should feel hesitant to express their religion while living in a country of freedom of religion.

“You can feel the hatred kind of rising,” she said. “It’s just interesting to see things dividing how they are.”

Altabaa said he believes America is for all kinds of people and it is unconstitutional to discriminate against others based on their religion.

Men gathered for Isha prayer, the final prayer of the day. Mary Onishi/The Hub@TTU

According to the 2010 U.S. Religious Census, cited in the Texas Almanac, Islam was the fifth largest religious group in Texas. The census also stated that Texas had the most number of Muslims in the U.S. as of 2010.

“We feel that we are American,” Altabaa said. “We love this country. We work hard to have a strong America.”

Khaleel Abusal, a graduate part-time instructor in Applied Linguistics & Arabic at Texas Tech, said America has always been depicted as the protector of freedom to the rest of the world.

“They are the guards of the freedom, of the human rights,” he said.

Abusal said he believes fear is being promoted in America today, which can be inferred from the large number of gun sales.

Total gun sales in the U.S. over the past four years. Source: 2010 U.S. Religious Census.

According to the National Instant Criminal Background Check records released by the FBI, gun sales were higher in 2016 than any other recorded year.

“Peace has to be promoted, not fear,” Abusal said.

Altabaa said the travel ban targeted the people running away from terrorism instead of terrorists. He said he believes it is within American principles to help and not to close the door on those in need of support.

“This is not the Islamic teaching, it’s not the Christian teaching, it’s not the American values,” he said.

An alarm on the imam’s phone went off in his office signaling time for prayer. Altabaa gathered in the mosque’s prayer hall with other men to lead them in the last prayer of the day.

Altabaa said he still has hope for America and its new president.

“We pray for him to change,” he said.

Altabaa may be thousands of miles away from his birthplace in Syria, but he said he is one of the millions of Muslims who calls America their own.

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