The New Faith
More Muslims than Jews. A nondenominational frenzy. A city brought up on Catholicism and the Lutheran way is reinterpreting its relationship with God.
FRIDAY PRAYERS at the Islamic Society begin with a sermon.
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
At noon, cars begin rolling into the parking lot behind the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, a plainly clad building at South 13th Street and Layton Avenue. Women wearing flowing jilbab clothes and hijab head coverings enter through the far-right door at the entrance to the ISM and climb a staircase to a balcony looking out over the mosque’s white-walled prayer hall. Men, some wearing ornate taqiyah hats and crochet skullcaps, enter to the left, walk into the hall sandwiched between the mosque and the ISM’s school, and take off their shoes.
Nearby, a short, brown-skinned man covered in a windbreaker sits nervously on a plastic chair, waiting for Friday prayers to begin. He looks through a plate of glass at the wooden pulpit in the prayer hall – the masjid, the place for prostration – and back around at the growing crowd of men. When the society added the masjid onto the school in 1995, the goal was to put up a simple, functional space, not a more traditional mosque decorated with geometric patterns.
“Asa lama lakum,” Middle Eastern, African-American and Asian men say to each other, walking onto the hall’s green carpet, where they sit down cross-legged or with their legs splayed out to the side. Egyptians, Palestinians, Sudanese, Indians, Bosnians, Albanians, Turks, Southeast Asians, Malaysians, natural-born Americans – they’re all here.
As with every week, prayers begin with men and women listening quietly to a sermon. “I do not perceive him, and he is aware and sees all things,” says a visiting speaker, Mohamed Abutaleb, a systems engineer who works for a Medicare contractor in Washington, D.C. Bright-eyed and wearing a neatly trimmed beard, he has a second career of sorts as a traveling speaker, a job to which he brings a certain fervency. “And as we renew this faith,” he continues, “it is so unshakable that it is as if you saw Allah with your own eyes.” More male Muslims watch from the basement, via a closed-circuit broadcast, and several hundred students listen from the school’s gymnasium, where the flags of the world’s Muslim-majority countries hang from the rafters.
In the prayer hall, a pale light reflects from the snow outside as everyone lines up to perform the bowing and kneeling motions of Islamic prayer. Many of the men are still dressed in heavy winter coats. “Please straighten the lines, fill the gaps,” the PA system booms as chants reverberate in the hall. “Allahu akbar.” Silence follows. “Allah,” the voice says, drawing out the second syllable, and the men bow. “Allah.” Facing a northeastern wall and the holy city of Mecca, the men on the first floor and the women in the balcony kneel and press their foreheads against the floor twice, their mouths moving with prayers. Due to the curvature of the globe, the shortest distance between Milwaukee and Mecca is a hop over the northern Atlantic.
Kneeling near the entrance to the prayer hall is Mike Madouse, a European-American wearing a peacoat with an upturned collar and an Irish-style flat cap. A financial aid officer at Herzing University, the local for-profit college, Madouse turned to Islam after experimenting with Buddhism. He’s mostly white, though his features are vaguely Middle Eastern, a chameleon’s gift in an environment where Caucasian faces are a rarity. After prayers, the nervous, windbreaker-wearing man finds Madouse standing next to the stairs leading to the overflow room in the basement.
The man shows Madouse a folder filled with papers, including a laminated page of Arabic calligraphy and a letter from a social worker. The letter reveals the man is a Burmese refugee who worked as a farmer and is an industrious laborer, but he speaks no English. Madouse looks over the papers, and the refugee begins to motion with his hands, miming the outline of a cylindrical shape and then something flatter. He presses his hands together and looks at Madouse, who doesn’t understand. The refugee could be asking for money, a bit of food or prayers. “I’m sorry,” Madouse says, and he smiles. The man's face hardens in frustration, but he accepts Madouse’s handshake warmly and slips away into the crowd, scanning the faces around him.
Between an influx of immigrants and a trickle of new converts such as Madouse – a movement sharing more in beliefs than in customs or language – Islam is easily the fastest-growing religious group in Milwaukee. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of self-identified Muslims in the metro area grew from about 2,900 to almost 9,200, according to surveys released by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Also emerging as an unconventional force in local faith are nondenominational evangelical Christians, who are hard to beat for sheer numbers. The guitar-loving Protestants now rank third in the area behind Catholics and Lutherans of all stripes. Roman Catholics still account for almost half of all area residents who identify with a religion, but those numbers are dwindling, even with Hispanic immigrants moving to Milwaukee and bolstering local parishes.
In contrast, the nondenominational Elmbrook Church, a megachurch in Brookfield that’s probably the state’s largest religious facility, attracts some 6,000 people a week to its upbeat, evangelical services, a number that’s still increasing. And consider this nugget: There are now more Muslims in the area than Jews, according to the estimates. Gradually, the tenor and complexion of faith in Milwaukee are being remade, one immigrant or adventurous believer at a time. Some Catholic parishes are filling with a new kind of parishioner. Sects of Lutherans are reckoning openly with issues of homosexuality, and communities built around minority traditions – including Buddhist sanghas and suburban Sikh temples – are taking root.
But growth in a city brought up on mainline European traditions doesn’t necessarily indicate liberalism or acceptance by the mainstream. Last year, a whisper campaign sowing fears of extremism haunted plans for a new ISM mosque in Brookfield, not six months before another kind of extremism – white supremacy – targeted the growing Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek. The shooting there still colors any conversation about minority religious communities in Milwaukee. And differences between some of the area’s fastest-growing traditions and competing societal norms present other challenges. Both Islam and parts of the evangelical Christian tradition have an uneasy relationship with homosexuality, sometimes accepting it as another form of sinful behavior and sometimes using it as a basis for exclusion. Evangelical groups may also bar women from pastoral leadership or participation in religious conventions, and separation of the sexes is standard practice at Muslim facilities, with the assent of many Muslim women.
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“We are very blessed we can incorporate separation within our services,” says Inshirah Farhoud, a nurse practitioner at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a female member of the ISM’s board of directors. During Friday prayers, the main floor of the prayer hall fills to capacity with men performing prostrations. “It’s quite inappropriate for men and women to position themselves in that way next to each other,” she says on a Friday as hundreds of men walk onto the floor downstairs. “We’re bursting at the seams!”