Fifteen years ago Anchorage was home to fewer than 200 Muslims. Today, the city boasts three Halal grocery stores, a Halal-by-request pizzeria and a population of more than 3,000 Muslims who hail from places like Albania, Somalia, Pakistan and Malaysia.
In October the community realized a long-held goal by breaking ground on Alaska's first mosque, which will occupy a lot off of the Old Seward Highway with sweeping views of the Chugach Mountains. The mosque, according to a building permit filed with the city in August, will be 16,523 square feet and carry a construction value of about $2.9 million. Leaders have said they hope to open doors in 2011.
The Islamic Community Center of Anchorage Alaska, as it will be called, will be one the farthest north mosques in the world. A mosque that went up recently in Inuvik, a village in the Northwest Territories, Canada, claims to be the world's most northern mosque. It's also historic: Alaska currently doesn't have a formal Muslim place of worship.
It's also ambitious. A 3-D rendering of the planned building shows a gleaming white building with a dome and minarets that organizers say will house an Islamic and secular school, prayer and event spaces, a library, nursery and center for interfaith dialogue that will offer classes on Islam to non-Muslim community members.
But in the wake of bruising national controversy over a mosque in Lower Manhattan, the leaders behind the mosque are wary of talking about it.
A community without a home
For years, the Islamic Community Center of Anchorage Alaska, the city's predominant Islamic group, has gathered its members in borrowed places.
Prayer services and lectures are held in a small storefront on West International Airport Road, a strip mall space sandwiched between a party supply store and a Spanish-language academy. The rented space has just enough space for prayer carpets and a small speakers' podium. At most, it can accommodate 200 people.
For bigger celebrations, the community rents space at recreation centers in Spenard or Fairview. At a recent potluck celebrating Eid-Al-Adha, an important religious celebration following the end of the Hajj pilgrimage, tables at the rented Asian Alaskan Cultural Center were heavy with lamb curries and fragrant spiced rice dishes.
It's time for Alaska's Muslims to have a permanent home, says Umal Samatar, who owns Juba Halal Market, one of three markets in the city that specialize in Islamic groceries and goods. Her East Anchorage shop is stocked with colorful headscarves, phone cards, spices like fenugreek and whole cardamom pods and freezers full of specially-prepared Halal meat. In her few years in Anchorage she's seen a steady flood of Muslim migrants, many of whom come from her home country of Somalia.
"I (opened the store) to feel at home," she says.
She thinks the mosque will help others to feel at home, too.
"They will gather and enjoy," she says. "Just like other people do. In Anchorage we have all different people -- Samoans, Native -- it's the same thing. This will be a place for church."
Alaska a welcoming home for Muslims
Lamin Jobarteh, the current president of the ICCAA and a longtime champion of the mosque, owns one of the city's other Halal grocery stores. Alaska Halal Grocery sits across the parking lot from the strip mall rental currently used for prayer space. On this winter afternoon, it's warm and cozy inside and "Judge Judy" is on the TV.
Jobarteh says the leadership of the mosque project would rather not comment for the story, citing a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in the Lower 48. Alaska has been a welcoming and tolerant home for Muslims, says Jobarteh, who left the West African nation of Gambia during a time of political instability and first came to Alaska to attend graduate school. In the wake of controversy over the Park51 mosque in New York, people have called and left messages on the Islamic Community Center's answering machine voicing support and "just letting us know they were there," he says.
The Anchorage Police Department even checked in to make sure everything was fine
But that hasn't been the case everywhere. Just a day earlier a mosque in Corvallis, Ore., where a terror suspect had attended services was firebombed, he says.
The Alaska Muslim community has long decried extremism. When Paul Rockwood Jr., a King Salmon meteorologist and Muslim convert who had attended Friday prayers was arrested for allegedly lying to the FBI about a jihadist hit list earlier this year, Jobarteh told an Alaska Dispatch reporter that Rockwood wasn't representative of the community.
"He's not part of our community here," he said at the time. "If what they're saying is true, nobody should have any sympathy for this guy."
Opposition has blocked mosques in other states
Still, Islamic community leaders' fears of backlash are justified, says Heather L. Weaver, a lawyer with the ACLU's Program on Religious Freedom and Belief. In the past five years there have been more than 50 anti-mosque incidents nationwide: From Washington to Florida, Muslim places of worship have been firebombed, vandalized and threatened. Meanwhile, recent controversy over Park51, a planned 13-story Islamic and interfaith community center near the World Trade Center site in New York, reached a fever pitch during the fall election cycle.
Planned mosques and community centers have also increasingly been the target of efforts to block or deny construction permits. In a recent Mayfield, Ky., case, the town's zoning board refused to permit an Islamic prayer space proposed by a group of Somalis, citing "inadequate parking" while 250 local residents looked on and cheered, according to the Paducah Sun newspaper. The ACLU intervened, and the zoning board ultimately couldn't legally justify denying the permit.
Unchecked, such incidents could lead to a chilling effect on Muslims' efforts to build houses of worship, Weaver said.
"One additional consequence of these efforts to block mosque construction has been that some Muslims have been fearful to be involved more in the community," Weaver said. "There have been several instances where a group obtained land or made plans and because of opposition didn't follow through with those plans."
For their part, Anchorage's Muslim leaders say they they'll welcome the community to their new mosque -- when the project is a just bit further along. Today the lot is snow-covered and quiet. And the Islamic center still has money to raise to make the mosque reality. For now, they're reaching out with their latest fundraising video, "A House in Paradise," which features photos of fireweed-and-mountain vistas and an appeal to help Alaska's Muslims, at long last, build their own house in paradise.