Muslims convene, reach out

Iowa City, Ia. - Aminah Assilmi turns over an undistinguished gray stone in her right hand to reveal sky-blue quartz crystals that have formed on the inside.

This is her symbol of inner truth. It is her "rock of Islam."

Assilmi, director of the International Union of Muslim Women, helped organize the first statewide Muslim conference, which concludes today in Iowa City.

While the inaugural Iowa Muslims Convention is about promoting Islam, organizers say it is also an indicator of how much the religion is being embraced in the state.

"The face of Iowa is changing," said Jeryl Watson, a 39-year-old Des Moines resident who traveled to Iowa City for the conference. Watson, who converted to Islam two years ago, was one of the first to arrive for Jumuah, a special congregational prayer every Friday afternoon.

More than 60 men gathered in a converted wood-and-brick house that, for the past two decades, has served as this city's mosque. Most were university students such as Imam Ali Barghouthi, who says the Muslim's religious lifestyle presents a challenge at U.S. colleges. Wisam Samarah, a 24-year old University of Iowa graduate student, recalled the strange looks he would get from American students when he washed his feet, face and forearms in the communal sink during his undergraduate days in Washington, D.C.

Organizers of the convention say it is their goal to "have a significantly positive impact in America by helping their state, and so their country, face the challenges of moral decadence."

There is a designated room on the U of I campus where Muslim students can pray.

While Muslims have made progress toward acceptance in traditional American society, stereotypes remain. They complain that too many Americans, for example, still think that all Muslims are terrorists.

Assilmi has hope. Pulling out a thin black box where a frail amber crystal rests on a bed of cotton, she tells of where it formed: on the inside of a smokestack.

"This tells me that Allah can make something good out of the worst that man can produce," she said.