Aurora, Colorado, plays host to the Colorado Muslim Society—the largest Islamic community organization in the Centennial State. One member of the society’s administrative staff is Iman Jodeh, who serves as public relations director and general secretary. She is also the spokeswoman for the Masjid Abu Bakr—the society’s flagship mosque.
Iman is a Denver-born Palestinian American. Her family moved to Aurora when she was three years old, and she still resides in Aurora today. Iman attended college and graduate school at the University of Colorado Denver, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and history and a master’s in public administration. In addition to her positions with the Colorado Muslim Society and the Masjid Abu Bakr, Iman also runs her own non-profit called Meet the Middle East, which creates relationships between Middle Eastern countries and the united states through education, cultural events, and travel.
In August of 2019, Iman spoke with us about her life and her experiences as a Muslim in America.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your family history?
I am a first-generation American. My parents came to the United States about 47 years ago. My father came as an immigrant and refugee. He was unable to return to Palestine after going to college at the University of Cairo in Egypt. He was an accountant around the Middle East, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He applied for a green card to the United States under the brain drain program that I believe Kennedy had started. He applied and got it. Once he came here he was an accountant for a few companies in Chicago at first. And one day he came [to Colorado] to visit a friend from college. He gets off the plane and Colorado's in this beautiful 80-degree weather. And that was the rest of it. He said that Colorado reminded him of the same topography as Palestine. He up and moved from Chicago and I thought that was the best decision he ever made in his life. And I’m forever grateful. He went back to Palestine, met and married my mom in two weeks and brought her back here. Fourty years later, they had four children—all successfully educated and professionally successful.
Can you tell us just a little bit about what your childhood was like growing up here in Colorado?
My childhood in Colorado was, I think, spectacular. I think I was blessed to grow up in Colorado. Dad always said it was the Switzerland of America. And I really believe that. I travel for a living and every time I come back here I’m so thankful that I live here. I grew up in a community that was incredibly diverse. That was true through preschool all the way through high school. For me it became commonplace that what we now know as minority communities were actually the majority. And as a peer counselor in high school, one of my jobs was to welcome in new students and to show them around and take them to their locker. I distinctly remember having white students come and say, “I cannot believe how diverse the school is.” It caught me off guard because for me it was, like I said, commonplace. I appreciated the richness of that tapestry that gave back to my lens, and view of the world.
What traditions from your childhood do you wish to continue in your life and extend to your family?
I think the traditions that I would like to continue from my childhood are definitely religious traditions. Things that come along with times of the year, like in Ramadan or in Eid—our two holiest holidays. I come from a very family-centric home. Meal time was a must. Cooking together was big. You also have to understand that many of the Muslims here in Colorado and Arabs come from places of strife. So as immigrants and refugees, oftentimes our parents' generation taught us to keep your head down, don't draw attention to yourself, assimilate, but never forget where you're from, your heritage or your religion. My parents did an excellent job of doing that. I speak Arabic fluently. I practice my religion.
I think, over the years, one thing that's happened is that generation is now getting older and their children are becoming more educated. And taking the helm. So making sure that leadership continues through, whether it's my children or the next generation. I think it's a really important point that we prove to the American public that unfortunately we have to do this, that we are just as American as our neighbors. It's important that we do that.
What stories have been passed down to you and about the history of the Muslim community in Colorado?
I was very blessed to live with the man [Iman’s father] who spearheaded a lot of it. The Muslim community has really been around since 1964 here in Colorado. We've had a pretty good history here. In the beginning, we didn't have our footing yet. Our Friday prayers consisted of renting out the conference room in a bank every Friday. Shortly after that they [the early Denver-metro Muslim community] purchased a home and they had the mosque out of this home. This was off of Ash Street and Colfax.
My father and a few other gentlemen from the community set out on this capital campaign and went to fundraise cash money to purchase land in Aurora and they went to the Middle East. They went all over [the Middle East] and sure enough, raised enough to break ground on a beautiful piece of land where our flagship mosque is today. In 1984-85, I believe, we broke ground. A few years later we were moved in and fully operational.
By 1990, we had a fully running Sunday school—founded also by my mother. We had a class for the women. We had a study group for men. We had scholars flocking to the mosque to be our sheikh and/or imam. We were becoming a legitimate community. The community itself was growing, which posed another issue—could we fit? So in the 1990s, we realized we were bursting at the seams.
We started a second capital campaign. We raised $2 million and expanded. We built on a second phase to the mosque and it included a multipurpose room, and we really wanted to have a multipurpose room that the entire community could use, not just the Muslim community. The 9 News Health Fair’s in there. Now people get married in there. We have funerals in there. We have a fully functional commercial kitchen. We have a library, we have an office, we have a conference room. We have seven new classrooms downstairs and we have a morgue. This is a huge step for us because now we are certified with the state to actually wash the bodies in accordance with Islamic tradition and immediately take them into the prayer hall and do the burial prayer upon the body.
The new section of the mosque really allowed us to accommodate more Muslims. When I was growing up as a child, there were probably around five mosques and 30,000 Muslims in Colorado. Today there's about thirty mosques and about 75,000 Muslims here. There are numbers that approach 100,000, but I'm being conservative. Many of these Muslims are in fact immigrants and refugees who are coming from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. I don't need to mention why those things are—right? Again, civil war, strife. There seems to be a common thread that just doesn't want to go away.
How do you represent all the cultures and the languages under the Colorado Muslim Society umbrella?
It is difficult. In the Colorado Muslim Society alone, there's probably thirty languages spoken. With those languages comes different traditions, tribal mentality, PTSD. There's so many things that come with each, not only culture but person. We try and accommodate it because at the end of the day, a mosque isn't just a place of worship, it's a community center. It's a place where people go to learn. It's a place where people go and find salvation or find shelter. Um, it's a place where people come to just be in silence. We want to make sure that no one ever feels like they can't find any of those things—at CMS or any of our mosques for that matter.
You were talking specifically about the CMS and the empowerment of women. Can you speak more to that?
Women in Islam have actually been given more rights than women in the West. Since 1400 years ago. There is a chapter in the Qur'an called “The Woman,” and throughout the entire Qur'an on not just this chapter, God himself grants rights to Muslim women. That includes the right to vote, the right to own her own land, the right to divorce, to retain her wealth before and after marriage, the right to an education, the right to maintain office, so on and so forth. Nowhere in my religion does it say a woman can't drive or she can't vote. These are all symptoms of a much more conservative culture. That gets way more attention from the West and paints a broad brush stroke [of all Muslims]. To think that all 1.8 billion Muslims in the world function this way when it's not the case. And the proof is in the pudding. There have been nine elected Muslim women heads of state in the Muslim world, and we've had none.
What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the Islamic community of Colorado?
Well I love that we are so diverse. The inherent challenges that brings; and sometimes distrust that also brings with other non-Muslim communities. A lot of my interfaith work can be difficult. I'm not saying that they just trust other faiths, but what I am saying is that when you come from civil war or when you come from war in general, your number-one goal, especially if you have children, is survival. The last thing on your mind is standing arm in arm with people of other faiths, even though they can be just as threatened as you are. Having them [non-Muslims] understand this dichotomy of what we're facing as a marginalized people can be very difficult.
How do you believe that non-Muslim Coloradans can become engaged within the Colorado Islamic community?
I think that that non-Muslims can become more engaged with Muslims by simply reaching out—visiting a mosque. We never turn anyone away. Our Friday prayers are always open. We are always welcoming folks for tours, for lectures. I'm always telling folks, if you would like me to come give an Islam 101 to your book club or to your Rotary Club or whatever it is that you have—tell me and I will do it. It's what we do for not only through Meet the Middle East, but through the Colorado Muslim Society. I think it's important that folks who are trained to speak a bout Islam do it so they have an understanding of what's being said in the community and that that message is streamlined and easy to understand for non-Muslims.
Can you tell us more about “Meet the Middle East”?
Meet the Middle East was founded quite a few years ago in an effort, I should say, maybe out of frustration because a lot of other organizations that were working in the Middle East, particularly in Palestine, were focusing on peace. I appreciated it, especially as a Palestinian, and I'm not, [saying], nor have I ever said, that they should stop that work. I think it's important. But what I did notice was that there was a step missing and I thought that step was essentially education on who you're going to meet. I don't believe you can run to the peace talk tables without knowing who you're going to go talk to.
So what I think is that Meet the Middle East provides that. We educate people about the Middle East through cultural programs. We have travel programs for high school students, young professionals and adults that go to Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Egypt. They are secular, non-political. We give you an unobstructed, 360-degree view of the region for you to make your own decisions as adults, as Americans.
I do a lot of consulting [through Meet the Middle East], so I work with the governor's office. I work with attorney general's office, the US attorney. I work with Children's Hospital police departments, all for just that cultural competency on Islam, Muslims, refugees and immigrants. I teach at the University of Denver about Islam and about the geopolitical situation of the Middle East. We’ve had a great run, and a lot of the people that we've touched have really been moved by the work that we do. It's inspired me to keep going. But I think it's important that people understand that there's so much more to this region than peace, than war and religion. That's what I need people to focus on for now.
What do you hope for the Colorado Muslim community in the future? What would be your dream for them?
I would love to see American-born Muslims take the helm at one point in the future. I would love to see more women involved in leadership. I would love to see more formal programs that incorporate maybe the non-Muslim public for outreach, education and community programs. I think it's just important to remember that again Islam in general is not hierarchal. It's very secular. When people ask me, “Well, don't you have a pope to make a statement or to condemn this?” Well, no, we don't because we are a communal religion.
I really want people to understand that it's harder for me to answer a question like that because this is maybe what I'm saying and what I envision for the community…I think whether it's my dreams or what I would like to see or that the next person. I think we can all come together and definitely say we have a shared interest and you have something to give and I have something to give. Let's just enrich our community, and make sure that it's the best place to worship and to welcome.
If somebody were to listen to this oral history, what would you want them to know about—whether your personal history or your community's history?
I would want them to know that the Muslim community here is working really hard to elevate ourselves and to come into the next generation, as a new community that meets the needs of not only the Muslims here but of the non-Muslims. I think it's really important that I say “non-Muslims” because we recognize very, very much that we are in a non-Muslim country. It is our obligation as Muslims to take care of our community regardless of faith. We take that very seriously. If I were to tell a Muslim listening to this a hundred years from now, I would tell them that we are doing our damnedest to make that happen. I think just like any faith community, just like any organization, we have hurdles and we are going to navigate this labyrinth till we become what we envision as a stronger community than say what we were thirty years ago.