The year was 1978. Bob Marley convinced warring Jamaican factions to shake hands. China lifted a ban on the works of Shakespeare. Pete Rose logged his 3,000th major league hit.
And in the sparsely populated town of Frankfort a small group of Sunni Muslims founded a Sunday school to preserve their cultural heritage and religious doctrine that would later become known as .
After four years of renting local classrooms and offices, enough money was raised to purchase property from a Frankfort crop duster at 8860 W. Saint Francis Rd. The farmhouse would eventually become the school. The airplane hangar would become the prayer hall.
“It was nothing but pure farm land,” AIA co-founder and vice chairman Tariq Khan recalled. “Saint Francis Road was just basically a one-lane road with an S-curve and a small bridge that only one car could pass at a time.”
The Islamic organization flew mostly under the Frankfort community’s radar for the next two decades, steadily raising money to erect a proper place of worship and dining on their property. Those who knew of the Sunday school and prayer hall, including its one and only neighbor, were very supportive, Khan said. Unlike the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, there would be no angry mob and police barricades after the felling of the World Trade Center.
“As far as I’ve heard, people didn’t even know we were there,” said Khalid Mozaffar, AIA communications and outreach director, as well as the assistant principal of its school. “There’s a long driveway. Now, of course, you can see the big dome from Saint Francis Road. Back then it was just another house.”
Isolated though it was, by Khan’s estimation the congregation has grown from its 1980s collection of 25 families, mainly of Indian and Pakistani descent, to almost 400 families today.
Mozaffar said he knows non-Muslims living in Frankfort who were asked to sign a petition against the construction of the group’s mosque, even though such opposition never turned up at the public hearings to obtain building permits in late 2002. The approved the permits unanimously and AIA broke ground in 2005, with only minor irruptions coming from a few anonymous phone-call threats and broken windows.
“We never felt like we were in danger or we were harassed,” Mozaffar said. “When we were building the new building, there were some who said, ‘Oh, we can’t have a mosque here.’ And then we said, ‘But we’ve been here for 20 years,’ and the whole argument went away.”
Not so in Orland Park.
Doctors and Businessmen and Engineers
The third and final public hearing regarding the construction of the in 2004 drew several hundred people and police, forcing the village board to relocate its meeting to the Civic Center.
“We didn't want a scuffle,” Badie Ali, a 29-year-old executive board member at the prayer center, said. “We told people to come who could keep their composure because we knew there might be some things said that they don't like.”
Several residents asked the village to deny the mosque on noise and traffic grounds, which Ali acknowledged as “legitimate.” Less diffidently, others clutched signed petitions and argued heatedly that the mosque would become a breeding ground for terrorists, and one man even declared, without irony, “If you build it, Muslims will come,” Ali said.
Nevertheless, unanimously approved construction plans for the mosque and were backed by many—but not all—of the village’s churches. Fresh out of college at the time, Ali said he isn't bitter today about the incident because the insults, slung by a vocal minority, didn’t represent the whole town. Opponents tried unsuccessfully to put the issue on a ballot.
Along with members of the Southwest Interfaith Team, a religious alliance co-founded by AIA, Mozaffar also attended the meetings and remembered the inspiration he felt when hearing non-Muslims make statements like, “You can’t call all Muslims terrorists. These people are already part of the community: they’re the doctors and businessmen and engineers. They need a place of prayer where they live.”
Leaders from both mosques refer to the incident in Orland Park as a matter of poor timing, political rhetoric and misguided fear. But they vow that their organizations are places of prayer and charity, not politics. A short list of either mosque’s charitable recipients includes Habitat for Humanity and the Greater Food Depository of Chicago, as well as local pantries.
“Whoever the skeptics were,” Mozaffar said, “they were proved wrong.”
Sister with a Veil On
Not a single resident complained to plan commissioners and trustees in 2009 when the prayer center applied for permits to erect a support building to handle the overflow of classes, lectures, mentorship programs and more. Ali estimated that OPPC draws about 1,000 mostly Palestinian Muslim families and has accommodated as many as 2,000 worshippers in a single day.
“We've been blessed, and it's to our vision of what we want to do here,” he said. “We're fellow citizens, Americans in the community. We've been here a long time. It's very hard in this area, and even the south suburbs in general, to drive without seeing a sister with a veil on. Muslims are now becoming such a fabric of society that people are used to them.”
Ali believes that Islam was the first thing hijacked on 9/11, and that it will take time and, more importantly, the cooperation of the Muslim community to mend the damage.
“Muslims … have been an exclusive group,” he said. “When it comes to their beliefs and their culture, they kind of keep it to themselves. They don't share as much as they should share with other people. After 9/11, I feel that Muslims have a huge responsibility to educate people on what Islam is.”
Ali is also chairman of the OPPC Youth and Outreach Committee and offers free tours of the prayer center. Just look for the blue brick and gold dome at 16530 104th Ave. You can’t miss it.
“That was the idea,” he said. “We didn't want to be hidden in the corner. We want to be out in front, to let people know that the doors are always open.”
Both mosques are encouraging people to attend Daley Plaza Chicago's “An Evening of Remembrance and Hope,” starting at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10, sponsored by the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. Visit the American Islamic Association and Orland Park Prayer Center for more details and contact information about a possible bus trip departing from OPPC.