Asheq Fazlullah was the only Muslim in his graduating class at Conestoga High School in the late 1980s. Even outside of school, he remembers only a handful of other Muslims in Tredyffrin Township where he’s lived for the last decade, after moving away to New York and Boston, and then back home.
“There may have been others, but I don’t remember any others,” he said. “Even outside of school, we saw only a handful of other Muslims. There was no Muslim community center then. The institutions for Muslims started in the ’90s and have become more established only in the last decade.”
Muslim community centers hold Sunday School, where young people receive faith instruction. Fazlullah said there was no Sunday School for Muslims when he was a youth in Tredyffrin Township. His parents taught him, he said, without much talk of identity issues.
“Faith was cultivated at home. I’m thankful that there was no feeling of ‘us and them,’ just, ‘This is who we are.’ Muslim identity didn’t have any issues with our larger identity. My dad’s been here since 1960, did his undergrad study here,” he said.
Today, Fazlullah works in campus ministry at Swarthmore College and Villanova University, supporting Muslim students and more generally helping students understand each other. He serves on the board of Interfaith Philadephia, and with Muslims Serve, feeding those experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia. He’s become a public speaker educating non-Muslims on Islam and the faith lives of their Muslim neighbors. He’s given more than 100 talks. You could say he’s a peacemaker.
“It was very organic choosing this work, I sort of grew into it,” he explained.
Fazlullah had been a financial trader, working in New York and Boston until 2010, when he moved back to Chester County, doing consulting work, and “getting reacclimated” in Tredyffrin Township.
As a volunteer SAT tutor at a Delaware County mosque, he met others who gave talks about being Muslim American. He was in the right place to be called upon when there was a need.
“Someone I knew was double-booked and I stepped in, and the speaking grew from that,” he explained. He part of the Delaware Family Speakers Bureau now and brings his talks to all kinds of institutions.
He said he got to know the Muslim chaplain at Swarthmore while working on a master’s in Islamic studies and started taking theology classes there and Villanova. That was five years ago and it came together into the work he does now in the place he considers home.
He said his parent made growing up in Chester County as a Muslim pretty easy. He said there was never a sense of difference, or of “us and them,” just, “this is what we are.”
“There was always a comfortableness about it,” Fazullah said. “Classmates are going to ask questions, be curious about the practice they see when they come to your house. But, you explain the best you can, and your friends compare to something they know that’s similar,” he explained.
He thinks people do this and can make community naturally. “There are always some who don’t want to create community, of course,” he said.
He only recalls once, during his freshman year of college at Penn State, that his difference caused any kind of conflict. “We’re all getting to each other, and I’m not taking part in a drinking party. I explained about my faith, and most said they really respect that. One time a guy was getting pushy, in my physical space, and the other guys who knew me were like, ‘back off,'” he said.
“It sticks in my mind because of the basic respect everyone showed, especially when the others stood up for me.”
But being Muslim still means being something not quite mainstream.
“During my talks, when I’m at a venue, it’s not uncommon to have one or two audience members who can be ‘challenging,’ in their demeanor,” he said.
“They may have a preconceived notion of what I am, or I’m not modeling what they expect, they may feel I’m not being authentic because it doesn’t mesh with their idea,” Fazlullah surmised.
Fazlullah has relatives in the Midwest. His father came to the U.S. in the 1960s and Asheq was born here. Within his family, there are stories of occasional verbal threats and other forms of discrimination.
In February 2017, during the “Muslim ban” a relative was flying back from a business trip in Germany. He swiped his passport and couldn’t get a boarding pass. He had to call his representatives back home, as well as civil rights organizations. The airlines apologetically said it was not them hindering the process. Finally, for no clear reason, the matter was cleared up, he said. Fox42 in Omaha reported the incident at the time.
Fazullah said he has a niece in Iowa who in 2017 was named “Distinguished young woman” of Iowa for achievement in academics, community service, and other categories. The Quad-City Times told her story when she received the honor.
“A panel of Iowans chose our 17-year-old niece as a model of what an Iowan should be,” he said, juxtaposing this story with the anecdote about the boarding pass refusal. He said he shares these things shared to show “it’s not all doom and gloom” but that there is “a challenging undercurrent,” for Muslim Americans.
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Muslim calendar during which Muslims who are able to, fast and give to the poor, with an intention of spiritual growth. Fasting during Ramadan means not eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset.
Fazullah explained this is the first time in many years that Ramadan is falling fully in an academic college year, so as an advisor to Muslim students, he’s helping with the challenges students face. In his work at Swarthmore and Villanova, he said he works at creating spiritual community on campuses. His work includes more two-way conversations than many students experienced growing up, being taught religion, he said.
“Faith is precious and valuable to students. A lot is about religious literacy, helping people outside the tradition understand and also from within to understand the breadth of their tradition,” he explained.
The Greater Philadelphia Muslim community is very diverse, he explained, and people are spread out. There are three Muslim communities in Chester County that he knows of, and there are only a few mosques. The communities have a center with a very small staff, where students attend Sunday School and community activities happen.
Main Line Muslim Society just started last year during COVID-19, Fazullah explained. “It was a fledgling community of about two dozen families; we rented space from St. Luke Methodist in Bryn Mawr. The pastor there has been very helpful.”