Two years ago, Muslim American pals Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq impulsively ventured out of their Harlem neighborhood to visit a different mosque in New York City each night of Ramadan, Islam's holy month of daytime fasting and reflection. Inspired by the diversity they discovered and encouraged by a growing fanbase, they raised the ante on their 30 Mosques project last year, breaking their fast in a different state each night, with more than 100,000 visitors following their adventures at 30mosques.com.
Ali, a 26-year-old journalist and standup comedian, and Tariq, a 24-year-old advertising copywriter and filmmaker, are exploring the other half of the United States this Ramadan, starting Aug. 1 in Anchorage, Alaska and working there way back to New York on Aug. 30. They've raised $12,000 in donations and are keeping costs low by staying on friends' couches, accompanied by documentary filmmakers Omar Mullick, 39, and Musa Syeed, 27.
I sat down with them in Seattle on Day 2 of "30 Mosques in 30 States," 2011 edition.
Other than visiting different states, what are you doing differently this year?
Bassam Tariq: We're winging a lot of it, but we also plan a lot. We've contacted all the mosques. And this year we have a better idea of what we're doing. And we're looking for interesting people to profile, and asking people how Islam is relevant today in America. Where are we now as a community, 10 years after 9/11? Are we defined by these events, and just stuck in this artificial reactionary mode? And how does that affect our faith?
What was your favorite part of last year's trip?
BT: Near the end of the trip, our car hit a rock on our way to Fargo, and we ended up visiting Ross, North Dakota instead. I typed in "mosque" on Google Maps, and this Muslim cemetery popped up, spelled "Moslem," and we went to check it out. It's only a town of about 50 people, but it has one of the first mosques ever build in the United States, in the late 1800s.
AA: We were finding communities that have been living in this country for hundreds of years, whether it's through the slave trade or settlers who came from the Middle East through the Homestead Act. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to continue this journey, to really explore even more in-depth how deep our roots are in this country.
What are you most looking forward to on this year's trip?
AA: We just got back from Alaska and that was amazing, being out in the wilderness and finding out how rich and vibrant that community is. And we're going to Hawaii, and there are also some more controversial ones. We got kicked out of a mosque in Alabama last year, and we want to go back this year and bury the hatchet. They saw the cameras and freaked out. Apparently that mosque, one of the people there was a convicted terrorist and they were freaked out that this was going to be a media circus. We want to go back and make peace.
BT: I'm most excited about stopping in Houston and seeing my wife and family. She's OK (with me being away during Ramadan), but it's hard.
How did you pick this year's cities and mosques?
BT: We have to go to the states that we missed on the last trip, and then we picked 10 states that we wanted to revisit. Some of it comes from people we know, or random suggestions or things that have been in the news. It's a little bit of everything. We go online and Google "mosque" or "Muslims" and a particular city that we'll be passing through. We're going back to Las Vegas to visit Amanullah. He's somebody we visited last time, and a lot of people were very interested to learn more about him.
It seems that the theme of this project every year is "Muslims in America are diverse." What have you learned from doing this already, and what is left to learn?
AA: We're trying to tell stories. We found that for some people, they thought this really showed the diversity of Muslims in America. But last year there was all this stuff about the Ground Zero mosque controversy and the pastor in Florida burning the Quran, so people reading about our travels were saying, "Wow, this isn't what we've been hearing." But I don't really feel comfortable setting out to combat stereotypes. This year, we're asking Muslims, "Is America a place where your faith can flourish?" We want to get people to tell us why they believe what they believe, and what their faith means to them. For many people, faith was just a way of holding onto their identity from back home. But if you're here to stay, then what does that mean?
BT: We're going to have more personal reflections from people this time.
Do you plan to keep this project going next year, or expand it to other countries?
AA: I wouldn't want to do it just for the sake of doing it, like doing 30 countries, which we've been approached about doing by some major people. But if it makes sense, and there's a desire for it, then I'm game for it.
BT: We've thrown out 30 states and 30 planets, but then we also want to go back to our families. It's very unnatural to be away from your family during Ramadan.
For more on this interview, visit Beliefnet's Belief Beat blog.