Madeline Heim Appleton Post-Crescent
Published 7:20 AM EST Dec 23, 2019
OSHKOSH – In 2010, leaders of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Oshkosh made the city a promise: If their wish to open a mosque was granted, that mosque would always be an open door to anyone who needed it.
A few weeks ago, they got a chance to fulfill it literally.
When shots rang out at Oshkosh West High School on Dec. 3 during an altercation between a student and a school resource officer, panicked students poured out of the building and were led by one of their classmates to the Masjid Qamar Oshkosh Mosque across the street.
Seventeen-year-old Duaa Ahmad, a member of the mosque, punched in the security code and held the door open as her peers streamed in. Then she followed them inside, where she and her father served coffee and water to the students as they waited to hear what had happened.
The mosque was, in every sense of the word, a sanctuary.
“It just simply reinforces that spirit and that principle that this is, hopefully, always a safe space,” said Umair Ahmed, vice president of the Oshkosh chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. “We live by the motto ‘Love for all, hatred for none’ … Duaa was practicing those principles that our faith outlines.”
The incident has turned a sudden spotlight on the mosque and the Oshkosh Ahmadiyya community, which now totals about 100 members.
But their open-door philosophy isn’t new at all.
A place of their own
On Dec. 3, Oshkosh West students took shelter in the Masjid Qamar Oshkosh Mosque across the street when a student stabbed a school resource officer and the officer shot the student.
A small group of Ahmadi Muslims had been worshiping in basements and sharing space with Oshkosh’s First Congregational Church for about two decades when they applied for a permit to convert a former funeral home on Eagle Street into a mosque and community center in 2010.
Though the City Council ultimately voted unanimously to grant them the permit, the issue wasn’t without contention.
“For some reason, (the mosque) was a touchy subject,” said former Councilwoman Jessica King, who now owns a property nearby. “It shouldn’t have been.”
Neighbors filed a petition opposing the mosque, citing worries about traffic, proposed activities for the community center and the hours of the group’s daily prayer, which occurs multiple times a day, sometimes in the early morning.
Former Mayor Paul Esslinger said the group’s religious affiliation was not brought up as an issue in any council meeting, and some contention is common when a property is being converted to a new use.
But at an open-house meeting Ahmadiyya leaders held at the funeral home prior to the vote, they did address questions about their views on tensions in the Middle East and their interpretation of certain aspects of Islamic law.
Ahmadi Muslims believe that the Messiah has already returned in the form of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who led the sect until his death in 1908. They believe Ahmad was sent to end wars and condemn bloodshed, and like the majority of Muslims worldwide, they reject terrorism in any form.
That open-house meeting, which Ahmed remembers was packed full, was meant to help people understand exactly why the Ahmadiyya community wanted to acquire the space and what they would do with it.
Their goal was to inform, however, not to lobby.
“We weren’t sure how people would react to this, but we didn’t ask anybody to speak up for us,” Ahmed said. “It’s not really our style.”
But at the meeting, person after person — some whom he didn’t even know — spoke in support of establishing the mosque. It was then that Ahmed knew that Oshkosh really was accepting of his community.
David Pagel, who was the pastor of the nearby Immanuel Lutheran Church at the time the mosque was opening, spoke to the council about concerns some of his parishioners had with the use of the space.
Today, though, Pagel said none of those concerns came to fruition. Esslinger and King, who both left city government in 2011, also said they hadn’t heard any criticism of the mosque after the fact.
And Ahmadiyya leadership made thinking about neighbors’ rights “second nature,” said Saad Ahmad, Duaa’s father.
For instance, they installed a special fence to block headlights from shining into nearby properties during early-morning prayer.
Reaching out, welcoming in
Members of the Ahmadiyya community already had a laundry list of contributions to their city — the mosque simply gave them a brick-and-mortar space to keep making connections.
The women volunteer at the food pantry, collect backpacks for school children, participate in Toys for Tots and run a coat drive, among other charitable events, said Duresameen Ahmad, president of the women’s group, while the men participate in highway clean-up and Muslims for Life, a blood drive held across the U.S. in remembrance of the victims of 9/11.
They also make special note of when they can open a dialogue with other religions, like hosting interfaith symposiums on different topics and participating in Oshkosh’s Festival of Gratitude, a potluck and celebration for all faiths.
The Oshkosh Police Department has reached out to engage in culturally competent training, Saad said, and university students make frequent visits.
During Eid al-Fitr, a festival celebrating the end of the fasting that occurs during Ramadan, they’ve shared their joy, and a handful of candy, with nearby neighbors.
And each week, the mosque hosts Real Talk on Islam, a casual event where anyone can drop in and ask questions.
“We want them to know what Islam is, real Islam,” Duresameen said. “We want to tell them that Islam is peace.”
The hope is that folks will understand that many times, the Islamic perspective on a given issue isn’t so different from their own, Ahmed added.
And of course, they’ve had their share of questions over the years — over the hijab, certain news stories or other difficult topics.
But they don’t shy away from those conversations. They lean in.
“Everybody will have uncomfortable questions,” Saad said. “That’s when we have truly become friends, when we are open to each other.”
‘That’s what everyone is supposed to do’
A video that showed Duaa opening the mosque’s doors to her fellow students received more than a half-million views and was shared on CNN and ABC.
Duaa herself has received a flurry of thank-you notes since that day.
But it hasn’t stopped there.
Duresameen was approached at Walmart by a grateful community member. Sana Malik, who leads the church’s youth, was thanked by a parent as she moved through the line to pick up her daughter after school.
“I said, that’s what everyone is supposed to do at that time,” Malik said. “We’re glad that we were of some help.”
It’s no surprise to Bill Van Lopik, a community organizer for the interfaith organization ESTHER-Fox Valley, that the mosque served as a safe, welcoming place that day.
Van Lopik said that in the dialogues he’s shared with members of the Ahmadiyya community, they were always striving to be good neighbors.
And though the incident on Dec. 3 was stressful and scary, Saad Ahmad said he sees a bright spot now that he’s had time to reflect:
The student who suggested they run to the mosque was not part of the Ahmadiyya Community.
It signals that the student recognized the mosque as a safe, secure place that they could go to, he said.
“We always said (back in 2010), this is Oshkosh’s mosque,” Saad said. “I think it has lived up to be that.”
Contact Madeline Heim at 920-996-7266 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @madeline_heim.