It’s mid-December, a little more than a month before Donald Trump will place his hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, and Aziz Junejo seems calm. That may be a product of the joy he takes in explaining his faith; as the host of the public access television show Focus on Islam, he’s tried for nearly 30 years to build a bridge between Seattle’s Muslim population and the rest of the city. On the other hand, that calm may be a result of having seen this before—not exactly threats of a nationwide Muslim registry and deportation, but a swell of misunderstanding and fear that nearly scuttled plans for the city’s first mosque.
In the 1970s, Muslims would drive hours, from points all over Western Washington, to gather at the Islamic Center, a converted two-story house near SeaTac International Airport that had a failing roof and no carpet. And every week, Aziz would watch his father, Mushtaque, and the Islamic Center’s other founder, Jamil Razzak, roll out Persian rugs on the hardwood floors for people to kneel on during prayers. The rugs offered little padding for sore knees, but the elder Junejo and Razzak were just happy to have a place to worship.
When the pair met more than a decade earlier in the mid-’60s while working as engineers at Boeing, Seattle’s Muslim community was diffuse and disconnected. There were Bosnians on the Eastside, Pakistanis in Bellingham, Egyptians in Olympia, Iranians in North Seattle. Junejo (who was Pakistani) and Razzak (who emigrated from Iraq) only found each other because they noticed that neither was eating lunch during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. “We had maybe 20 families in the area,” Aziz remembers. So while the house in SeaTac wasn’t ideal, it was something, a safe and welcoming space at a time when growing tensions in the Middle East had contributed to Westerners’ misplaced distrust of Islam.
The Islamic Center was not, however, adequate for Adnan Idriss. Originally from Syria, Idriss moved to Seattle in the late 1970s to broker manufacturing deals with Boeing on behalf of Saudia Airlines. Over dinners with the other families, he would talk about the great mosques he attended back home, pining for their stately domes and wide-open prayer halls. That, he told his adopted Muslim community members, was what Seattle needed. Razzak and Junejo couldn’t disagree, but that kind of structure cost money, and a lot of it. It was hard enough to raise funds to buy the ramshackle house in SeaTac.
Capital wasn’t a problem for Idriss, though; his father-in-law was a wealthy sheikh back in Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Abdul Kadir Idriss didn’t need much convincing. His faith promised a great palace in the afterlife to those who built mosques in this world, so he didn’t hesitate when his son-in-law asked for the nearly half-million dollars the project would require.
The design was simple: a 6,500-square-foot brick building with little ornamentation to distract from its true purpose. The site was a quiet corner in Seattle’s Northgate neighborhood, and if not for its copper-topped minaret and modest dome, the building might have been mistaken for a community center. But neighbors knew what would be built on their block before the first backhoe showed up at the corner lot. And the backlash was quick and intense.
At the beginning of the mosque’s permitting process, in late 1980, the country had been waiting a year for Iran to release 52 American hostages taken from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and it would wait one more. So it was into that politically charged climate that Junejo, Razzak, and Adnan Idriss waded as they knocked on doors before construction began. They’d hoped to introduce themselves to their neighbors, but instead they were met with wariness: It was a residential neighborhood, so where would the congregants park? And would the streets ring multiple times a day with the Muslim call to prayer?
The mosque’s founders tried to ease the residents’ minds: Yes, there would be more cars around, but the heaviest traffic would come on Fridays at noon. And no, prayers would not be preceded by loud announcements in another language. But for some, whose reactions skewed toward hostility, reassurance wouldn’t come easy. Aziz, then just a teenager, joined his father on those tours of the neighborhood and remembers the chilly reception. “We don’t want Arabs in our neighborhood,” families would say before shutting their doors.
In February 1981 the bad blood culminated in an appeal of the mosque’s permit application. And while the protest delayed construction, it failed to stop the project altogether. Later that fall, the Idris Mosque—the first of its kind built west of the Mississippi—opened at the corner of 15th Avenue and Northgate Way.
Aziz Junejo tells the story of the mosque’s founding and the community’s efforts to stop it without a hint of anger. “People just didn’t have a good understanding of Islam or Muslims,” he says. And he even takes a little responsibility. “At the time we were too busy trying to build a community to reach out to the public.”
Today, though—when it might matter most—Junejo’s more than willing to reach out on behalf of that community, which has expanded to nearly 50,000 members to talk about the Idris Mosque and the lessons of its birth.
Updated February 28, 2017. A previous correction, on February 24, changed the spelling of Idriss to Idris. Today's correction restores the spelling of the mosque’s name as originally published. While some materials spell it with one S, Idriss conforms to the spelling used by the family that helped establish the mosque and matches the dedication plaque on the building.