We got off to a great start in our trip in St. Louis, meeting the former governor Bob Holden, current mayor Francis Slay (pictured above) and members of many different ethnic communities. St Louis has a multitude of communities, from the French Catholics who settled the area in the fur trapping days to the Jews who came in the 19th century. There is an increasing Mexican population and Italians live on “the Hill.” Then there is the predominately African-American area of East St. Louis, which exists as almost its own entity. The first question people usually ask one another in St. Louis is “what high school did you go to?” which immediately places one in a certain economic and cultural context. With all the different enclaves, we wanted to know: are people getting along? Are they talking to each other? Is there communication?
One of the most fascinating communities we visited were the Bosnians—Muslims who immigrated to the United States in the mid 1990s during the war. The Bosnians, like the Somalis we spoke to earlier in the week, were fleeing almost unimaginable suffering in their country and sought escape and solace in a new land. St. Louis has between 50,000 and 70,000 Bosnians, a substantial population. The Bosnians moved into old neighborhoods and opened businesses. They are widely credited by many in St. Louis with vastly improving areas of the city.
Unlike other Muslim groups we spoke to in St. Louis, the Bosnians have light skin which they said eased their transition to American society. Before 9/11 when Islam was largely invisible in the US the Bosnians said relations with other Americans in St. Louis were largely a matter of culture, but after the attacks a new dynamic entered the fray. As one Bosnian explained to me, the new attitude toward the Bosnians was “right skin color, wrong religion.”
Although the Bosnians said that they had been welcomed by America with open arms and loved their new country, the situation facing Islam in America was putting them on the defensive. When Imam Muhamed Hasic, the Bosnian community and spiritual leader, sought to add a tall minaret to the community center, a website arose threatening to pour pigs blood on it and sounding the alarm that the Muslims were taking over. In an instance of globalization at work the website was picked up by Hindu and Serb nationalists who jointly warned Americans of the coming Muslim threat. The hysteria drummed up by the American media regarding Islam struck many Bosnians as eerily reminiscent of the situation back home immediately before the genocide when Serb media warned that if the Muslims were not stopped they would take over. The media warned Serbs that all Christian girls would soon be wearing the headscarf, despite the fact that most Bosnian women did not wear the headscarf, according to a Bosnian man I spoke to.
Despite these challenges the Bosnians always took great pains to say how accommodating Americans had been, and how lucky they felt to be in America and to have the opportunities it afforded. In a Bosnian mosque after Friday prayers a man in his 50s told me of his belief that Americans were Muslim without knowing it because they treated the Bosnians with such compassion. The Americans, he said, had not read the hadiths where the Prophet spoke of kindness towards others, but they followed them nonetheless. So we heard different views of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in St. Louis, but in general seemed largely positive, although I’m not sure how much mixing actually goes on outside of the enclaves. I’m looking forward to seeing what the situation is like in Dearborn, Michigan, our next stop.