AURORA | Sitting at his desk at the Colorado Muslim Community Center — with a gym full of children shouting happily during a loud game of soccer right outside his door — Imam Karim AbuZaid doesn’t hesitate when asked what he hopes outsiders understand about the area’s growing Muslim population.
“Islam is not a cult,” AbuZaid said. “I think this is a very important thing that Americans need to realize.”
At a time when his faith is often under attack — a ban barring travel from several majority-Muslin countries remains tied up in court and reports of hate crimes against Muslims have climbed in recent months — AbuZaid said he is reaching out to non-Muslims hoping to squelch any fears they may have about he and his community.
Whether it’s by forging relationships with local police, hosting regular open houses at the center or loudly condemning terror attacks, AbuZaid said he hopes he can alleviate the anxiety some feel about the region’s Muslim population.
TOO MANY DON’T KNOW
Too many in Aurora and the metro area just don’t know, and he and others want to change that.
“We have to be proactive about going out there and talking to them and letting them know, ‘I am OK,’” he said.
And all of that comes at the same time local leaders, including AbuZaid, have to fend off the occasional accusation that they are “extremists,” accusations lobbed even as AbuZaid condemns every terror attack that makes headlines.
Local leaders estimate Colorado’s Muslim population, which includes 14 mosques today, has grown from between 30,000 and 50,000 people in 2013 to more than 70,000 people today. And the hub of that community is Aurora and the southeast metro area, which is home to the state’s largest mosque, the Colorado Islamic Society at Parker Road and South Dayton Street, as well as several other mosques, including the community center.
Near East Hampden Avenue and South Chambers Road, the center is inside the old Mission Viejo community recreation center and boasts a gym for soccer, basketball and handball, as well as other play spaces for young people.
The racquetball courts in the basement have been converted into prayer spaces with ornate carpets and loud speakers.
IT’S A COMMUNITY CENTER
AbuZaid stressed that the center isn’t a mosque with a community center, instead it’s the other way around, a community center that also offers space for prayer and Islamic teaching. The key to reaching a younger generation, he said, and keeping young Muslims interested in the faith, is to offer them the sorts of activities they already want.
Ahmed Salih, development director for the Islamic Circle of North America’s Colorado chapter, said the center is the only facility of its kind in the state. Other mosques in Colorado outside of the Islamic Society tend to be smaller, including one near Dillon that operates from a small apartment.
With the community’s growth, Salih said he also sees Colorado Muslims taking a more-active role in their community and hopes to see more run for elected office in the coming years. At the college level, he said young Muslims have been particularly involved in recent years.
“They are very active, they are probably the soul of organizing any event we have here in Colorado,” he said.
Isaac Khan, a board member at the project, said the community center can be a way to reach the non-Muslim community, too.
When he came to the United States from Pakistan 20 years ago, Khan said outreach efforts were minimal in large part because people didn’t a great deal of attention to someone’s Muslim faith.
And while recent months may have seen a spike in animosity toward Muslims in the United States, Khan said that isn’t the whole story.
“The hate has come out more and the love has come out more as well,” he said. That means the occasional kind words from strangers to Muslim women wearing a head scarf, he said.
Still, the community grapples with some of the same challenges it has long battled, including accusations of extremism.
Twice in recent weeks, AbuZaid has had to fend off accusations that he is an “extremist.”
A letter to the Aurora Sentinel from city council candidate P.K. Kaiser, a Muslim man who has worshiped at the center before, — which the Sentinel removed from its website shortly after publishing because it contained unsubstantiated claims — last month compared AbuZaid to Anwar Al-Awlaki, a Yemeni cleric who advocated terrorism and was killed in a 2011 US drone strike.
AbuZaid and Kaiser both say that Kaiser has since apologized for the accusations.
And last week, an article in the conservative Daily Caller about that controversy called AbuZaid a “radical cleric” and an “extremist” — words often associated with Muslim leaders who advocate violence.
AbuZaid seems largely unmoved by the accusations.
“My record proves otherwise,” he said.
His teachings and sermons are virtually all available for free online. And a simple Google search turns up several instances of AbuZaid clearly and regularly condemning violence.
“I challenge anybody to go out there and find something I have said that incites Muslims to even think about doing anything (violent),” he said.
Ahnaf Kalam, who wrote the Daily Caller piece, said he doesn’t think extremism necessarily denotes violence. Instead, he said AbuZaid’s sermons have taken extreme positions on a variety of topics, including homosexuality.
“You don’t necessarily need a suicide vest to preach extremism,” said Kalam, who describes himself as a former Muslim and said he previously attended AbuZaid’s sermons.
Kalam said that while he has never seen AbuZaid overtly support violence, preaching intolerance is a step on the path toward violence.
“This sort of sentiment is what begins the radicalization process,” he said.
AbuZaid said he takes a traditional view of his faith.
“I happen to believe that my way is the way to salvation, I believe that 100 percent, and there is no question about it,” he said.
On topics including homosexuality, he said the Quran is clear in its opposition, but he said that doesn’t mean he supports treating gay people any differently than straight people.
“This does not entitle me to defame or discredit any other person,” he said. AbuZaid publicly and vociferously condemned the Pulse gay nightclub attack in Orlando last year. The attack was carried out by a Muslim American.
And anytime there is an attack, AbuZaid said he goes to his computer and sends off an email to the more than 2,000 people on his center’s mailing list. Each time, he said, he tries to make his message clear. “This is against the teachings of Islam, and this is wrong.”