SOUTH OGDEN — In a new Northern Utah mosque, Muslims gathered for Friday prayers soon after the massacre of 50 worshippers half a world away in New Zealand.
They cried and hugged and comforted each other, said Mohammed Al-Tigar, president and chair of the congregation.
“Not a single one of them showed fear,” he said. “I am extremely proud of that.”
These are exciting times for the local Islamic community, which opened the Islamic Center of Kuwait in Utah last November in a South Ogden business park.
The mosque can serve 350 worshippers at a time, many more than the old meeting place on 23rd Street in Ogden, and leaders are planning community outreach programs.
But the positivity is tinged with tangible worries about a rise in mistreatment of local Muslims amid the harshened domestic political climate since 2016.
And now, they are trying to process the horror of the March 15 massacres at two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques. The suspect is a white supremacist ideologue.
“It saddens us and hurts us and it upsets us that something like this took place while they were waiting to pray,” Al-Tigar said Tuesday evening in an interview at his mosque.
In his sermon March 15, he urged congregants to “not to be sucked in ... and act based on your emotions by thinking that the wrong what was done could be fixed by another wrong.”
Allah, he said, “commanded us to be patient, to pardon, and turn away from the ignorance,” Al-Tigar said.
A CONSERVATIVE CHOICE
The 43-year-old volunteer religious leader, a Weber State University graduate and employee of a Salt Lake City technology company, has been in Utah since 1993.
He was born and raised in Kuwait, the third of five sons. The family is of Syrian origin. His father still lives in Kuwait.
Al-Tigar arrived here after his father decided Utah was the right place for his sons to get their college educations.
“My dad said, ‘If you go, you will go somewhere where I will know you will be good,” Al-Tigar said.
A friend of his father’s had moved his sons to Utah from Houston and they were all impressed with the conservative, family-oriented environment.
During the 1970s and ‘80s, local Muslims had no mosque, Al-Tigar said. The closest they got was when one man built a 20-by-20-foot shed in his backyard where they could have prayer meetings.
Things changed after Sept. 11, 2001.
“We started getting questions about Islam — ‘What are you guys doing here?’ — but mostly it has been positive,” Al-Tigar said.
As community numbers grew and the Utah destination became more popular, the congregation in 2002 was able to buy a building in Ogden to establish a small mosque.
“Today, we sold it,” said Al-Tigar, because the South Ogden location has rendered it unnecessary. “For 17 years we served a lot of people in it, and hopefully we helped them in maintaining a proper Islamic lifestyle while blending in with the community.”
The mosque plans to have an open house sometime this year. It also is considering beginning a program to benefit the homeless and may offer basic Arabic language classes.
“We will be opening our doors for our neighbors and everyone that hears about it to come and learn about and understand Islam,” he said.
“And with all due respect,” Al-Tigar told his visitor, “not get their information solely from the media that may not give them the true message of this beautiful religion.”
He said in the past during Ramadan, the mosque has invited leaders of other faiths to break fast with them, and those gatherings were a success. That tradition will continue.
“Utah’s always been a wonderful place,” Al-Tigar said.
“I invite my friends from other states to come here,” he said. “I tell them you’ll never be able to find a much nicer, understanding people than here.”
‘THE STARE-DOWN IS NORMAL’
But the last few years have been different, since the election of President Donald Trump, white supremacist resurgence and controversies over immigration.
“I am sad to say I have never, ever felt like this, even during 9/11,” he said.
At work or around the community, he said he never before was mistreated because of his religion, appearance or clothing.
“My relationships with my colleagues are wonderful,” he said. “But outside, unfortunately there are a few that do not know what Islam is and how peaceful it is.”
“And they so happen to paint all of the Muslims with the same ugly brush that perhaps may have been caused by some horrendous people who claim to be Muslims.”
Now, he said, “the finger is normal, the stare-down is normal.”
But he said his greater concern is the treatment of women and children.
“Some of our sisters get yelled at if they are alone,” he said.
Overall, however, the congregation is well accepted and wants to reach out more in turn, Al-Tigar said.
South Ogden Mayor Russell Porter helped cut the ribbon at the mosque’s grand opening in November, for instance.
And in Ogden this past week, the city diversity commission and the mayor’s office issued a statement condemning the New Zealand attacks and saying they stand in solidarity with Middle Easterners and Muslims who live here.
Al-Tigar was apologetic about even mentioning recent years’ mistreatment of his congregation members.
“Utah is still a whole lot better than other places, so please don’t get me wrong,” he said. “Maybe I say it hurts a lot because I wasn’t used to that.”
The mosque has been open for only a few months, and Al-Tigar said the congregation still has a lot of work ahead, inside its walls and without.
“One of our main objectives is for us to be a positive input to our children and our neighbors,” he said. “And we would like to be a bridge between the differences that we see.”
PERCEPTIONS “And they so happen to paint all of the Muslims with the same ugly brush that perhaps may have been caused by some horrendous people who claim to be Muslims.”