by Tim Gilmore, 12/30/2016
Mohammed Shafraz touches his forehead to the red and gold carpet, and his palms and knees and bare feet. He’s praying. He faces Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, in Saudi Arabia. Still praying, he sits back upright, then stands, then kneels, then prostrates himself again.
As a devout Muslim, Mohammed repeats these prostrations four times in his prayer and comes to the masjid to pray five times a day, beginning before dawn.
At this Bosnian mosque on Art Museum Drive, this kind Sri Lankan man is the first person I meet. His prayer cap, or taqiyah, fits his head lightly, while he wears his dark beard long and thick.
Though Al-Hajj Feriz Delkic is a Bosnian masjid, the Arabic word for mosque, the prayer room fills several times a day with Muslims from Egypt, India, Nigeria, and Michigan. Like Mohammed, many of them pray at the nearest of four Jacksonville masjids, depending on where they are at a particular time of day.
“You come inside as well,” Mohammed had told me. “Everyone is welcome here.”
Since Jacksonville has the fifth largest Bosnian population in the United States, it’s not surprising to find a Bosnian masjid here. According to Mirza Pilakovic, president of the Bosnian American Association of Jacksonville, between 12 and 15,000 Bosnians live in the city.
Most Bosnians came to Jacksonville when the Eastern European country of Yugoslavia broke into pieces after the fall of the Soviet Union. Under the authoritarian leader Josip Tito, Yugoslavia had been a strong part of the Eastern Bloc of European communist countries, though it frequently defied the Soviet Union. Tito led Yugoslavia from 1943 until his death in 1980. Political crisis followed Tito’s death, and three years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the collapse of Soviet communism, Yugoslavia shattered into several smaller nation states and half a dozen wars.
Mejrema Kapetanovic apologizes repeatedly that her English is so poor, though it’s better than she thinks it is. She vacuums the exquisite carpets of the prayer room vestibule after midday prayers. She says she lost family members in the Bosnian War, but won’t talk about it.
Since coming to Jacksonville in 1997, Mejrema has worked low-wage jobs, encountered serious health problems, and lost work in the Great Recession in 2008. But she cleans the masjid and, like so many American immigrants from war-torn countries, threads her fingers together, looks upward meaningfully, and says, “I thank God for America! I thank God!”
With the help of Lutheran Social Services, Bosnians came to Jacksonville, St. Louis, and Chicago in the heart and aftermath of the Bosnian War, which lasted from 1992 to 1995 and resulted in the Christian Serb massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica. The Srebrenica Massacre is remembered as an act of genocide, the worst crime in Europe since Hitler.
Feriz Delkic came to Jacksonville in 1992. Feriz transferred his business wealth to Jacksonville and Ponte Vedra, where he owns and operates International Technical Ceramics, Inc., which manufactures and sells “green” ceramic materials to NASA, power plants, and potteries.
In 2008, he donated $2 million toward building the Bosnian masjid, whose board named it for him. Feriz’s donations also made possible the renovation and prominent placement of an 11 foot tall bronze statue of Father Francisco Lopez, the first priest at a Catholic parish in what’s now the U.S., at Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine.
Likewise, Mohammed Shafraz tells me he thinks of Christians, Hindus, and Jews as his brothers and sisters. I assume he assumes I’m a Christian, not an agnostic / atheist / pantheist, but I don’t bring myself into it. He points to prayer times at the masjid as an example of such kinship.
“At prayer time, everyone prostrates themselves shoulder-to-shoulder before God. It doesn’t matter if you’re a wealthy businessman or if you’re poor.” In addition to the wide range of nationalities who pray at Al-Hazz Feriz Delkic, prayer space here is not, as is the case at many masjids, segregated by gender.
If this corner of Art Museum Drive between Atlantic and Beach Boulevards seems a surprising place to find Al-Hajj Feriz Delkic Masjid and Islamic Community of Bosniaks, it was a stranger location for Jacksonville Art Museum, from 1965 until it moved to Hemming Park in 1999, where it’s Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville today.
The museum was built as a satellite of the Kroger Centre, a suburban corporate office park built in the early to mid-1960s. The boxy bland corporate compound has more recently been generically and redundantly renamed Midtown Centre.
Ironically, however, Art Museum Drive turns out to be perfectly suitable for the masjid. Its aquamarine minaret rises among beige ’60s and ’70s apartment blocks. Its relatively humble domes are topped by the Islamic Crescent and Star.
Inside, Bosnian flags hang in hallways, and prayers for the solidarity of humankind through the spectrum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the federation of two distinct Bosniak regions of the former Yugoslavia.
Mohammed owns a gas station on Jacksonville’s Northside. In his faltering English, he describes Jacksonville as “a drug city.”
“I see it every day,” he says. He’s seen men and women fall down at the curb. He’s given desperate people his phone number.
“I’m so lonely,” the man told him. “I pass hundreds of people every day, but nobody interacts. I have no reason for being.”
I carry with me the typical white progressive hypocrisy of being open to the ideas of those who seem “different,” when I’ve long ago closed myself to the very similar ideas that come from my own background. I’m aware we TWPs have a tendency to say Islam is about peace, that those who commit violent acts in Islam’s name aren’t representing “true Islam,” but that the Crusades and the Ku Klux Klan are despicable examples of the great harm Christianity has done in the world. We TWPs are also more likely to praise black Christianity, with thoughts of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and decry every instance of white evangelicalism. We TWPs say we’re “white but woke” and, knowing we’re historically privileged, side nearly always, in our comfortable surroundings, with the oppressed.
I could defend large portions of that hypocrisy, but won’t. I mention the whole history of European and American colonialism in the Middle East and Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.”
Besides all that, it seems obvious to me that the world would be better, that we would each individually be better, if we learned about and tried to empathize with those people we think are so different from us.
Mohammed says, “If you hurt one human being, you’ve hurt all humanity.”
Maybe Mohammed Shafraz, Feriz Belkic, and Mirza Pilakovic are the Americans who could most “Make America Great Again.”
For Mohammed, Islam is about peace, love, and humility. The kneeling and touching the forehead to the ground during prayer is a poignant and poetic physical embodiment of humility and devotion.
When I ask him if he gets tired of defending his faith and of American political rhetoric against Islam, he says, “There’s no better time to be a Muslim. When you feel that so many people are against you, that is the time to show them the most love.”