Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq chose Webster University as the first stop on their “30 Mosques, 30 States” tour. The Muslim-Americans visited a different mosque in a different state on each of the 30 days of Ramadan, getting a first-hand view of the many diverse Islamic communities in the United States. One of their most poignant visits took place in Coatesville, Pa.
“I’ve never prayed with this many white people in my life,” Tariq said as he recalled the visit.
The pair paid a visit to the shrine where Sufi Saint, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, is buried. Bawa came to Pennsylvania from Sri Lanka in 1971, where he established the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and wrote 25 books. The predominantly white Fellowship members still follow Bawa’s teachings and dietary restrictions on the farm where they worship.
Tariq said the visit was humbling in a way, and a learning opportunity.
“I learned to try my best to be unassuming in what I say and do,” Tariq said. “Because I have prejudices too.”
Ali, a stand-up comedian and writer for USA Today, first teamed up with Tariq in 2009 to tour 30 mosques in New York during the 30 days of Ramadan. The pair was encouraged to blog about their experiences by friends, which drew attention from readers all over the country and the world.
For 2010, Ali and Tariq decided to take their blog on the road. The pair set out on a cross-country trek to visit 30 different states, writing about the diverse communities that host mosques across the United States.
Ali and Tariq originally planned the finance the trip with grant money, but the founders backed out at the last minute. With two weeks until Ramadan, the bloggers went to the internet, posting on Twitter and Facebook in hopes that their friends would help raise $6,000 to rent a car and pay for gas. Within seven days, Ali and Tariq had enough money to pay for the trip.
Newspapers and blogs all over the world, from the Huffington Post to Time Magazine to Al Jazeera, have covered Ali and Tariq’s story. The two bloggers were joined by CNN on the southern leg of their tour.
Niki Parres, assistant director for the Multicultural Center and International Student Affairs said she saw a feature about Ali and Tariq on CNN, which automatically interested her.
“It’s such an awesome thing,” Parres said. “A lot of students in our office celebrate Ramadan. And these guys are around the same age as the students here.”
Parres hoped that Ali and Tariq’s presentation could be a way to open conversation about tough issues like religion or race on campus.
“It can be difficult to approach a subject that people are so passionate and emotional about,” Parres said. “I hope (this presentation) encourages people to have conversations about intimate things like religion, race and identity.”
About 100 Webster students and community members attended the presentation, which took place Tuesday night in the Sunnen Lounge. The audience was comprised of both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Eldina Kandzetovic, a junior sociology major at Webster who is Muslim, said the presentation opened her eyes to how many Muslims there are in the United States, and how diverse they are. She said she hopes Webster will continue to bring in speakers like Ali and Tariq.
“It shows how very diverse Webster is, how equal everyone is (on campus),” Kandzetovic said. “I was excited to see the event promoted so much.”
For their next project, Ali said they have plans to visit 30 mosques in 30 different countries. Ali said that their experience is not unique to New York, or even the United States, and that there are more stories that need to be shared.
On Monday, Sept. 27 an Islamic prayer center was vandalized in St. Louis, according to an article on KSDK. Ali said they had not heard about the incident, but that acts of violence and discrimination like vandalism were the opposite of their personal experience.
“I don’t want to downplay (anti-Islam sentiments in the US),” Ali said. “But to say that this representative of ordinary America is ridiculous.”