CHICAGO, ILLINOIS —
Early on a Friday afternoon, hundreds of people flock to Elston Avenue on this city's northwest side as the Islamic call to prayer resounds in the air.
This section of North Elston lies in the 40th District of the Illinois General Assembly and is one of the state's most ethnically diverse areas. The district is home to three mosques.
One, on Elston, is the Muslim Community Center, or MCC, where Saif Mazhar works and prays.
Mazhar is not an immigrant – he was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs – but he doesn't always feel accepted.
"I guess people look at me differently," he tells a VOA reporter inside the MCC's sprawling worship space. "Like if I was to go to like a store or restaurant, I kind of sometimes put my head down a little bit, so people don't look at me in, like, a terroristic way, or 'he looks like a terrorist,' you know?"
The scenario is all too familiar to Imam Kamil Mufti of the Islamic Foundation of Peoria, a city about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. And it's getting worse.
"The comments are coming, like 'all Muslims are terrorists,' or that Muslims celebrate 9/11," the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the United States September 11, 2001, Mufti explains. "Or, 'Muslims are going to blow something up.'"
Some of the most heartbreaking episodes occur among children at school, Mufti says. "It's not like regular bullying. It does something to people at a psychological level."
Islamophobia is a growing problem, Mufti says, and he blames that on the U.S. presidential campaign: "What numbers, statistics and polls tell us is that Islamophobia does not even peak after a terrorist criminal act. It peaks around election season."
This election season has been filled with controversial comments directed at Muslims. Republican front-runner Donald Trump has called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Trump also said he would consider shutting down some U.S. mosques.
"I don't think a lot of people understand what that rhetoric does to children, does to grownups, to women who choose to wear the headscarf and dress in more apparent religious garb," Mufti explains from his Peoria office. "There's a lot of fear because of the rhetoric, which is coming from top down."
John Arena, an alderman in Chicago's 40th District, is worried, too.
"We're having a conversation nationally about religion, about race, in some of the most divisive terms I've ever seen in my time watching politics," he says.
Saif Mazhar's bigger concern is that harsh language encourages harsh hardens attitudes and encourages encourages more corrosive language and possibly actions.
"I think the people that were kind of hidden are kind of outspoken now," he says. "They are talking more about it and I think he is influencing the minds of other Americans."
Mosque open house
Rather than sit quietly and allow such comments to go unchallenged, Imam Mufti decided to do something about it.
In early March, Mufti opened the doors to the Islamic Foundation of Peoria facility for an interfaith event titled "Know Islam, Know Peace." It featured speakers from different religions from the Central Illinois Interfaith Alliance.
Trump "said that if mosques are open, and Muslims have nothing to hide, why don't they open them?" Mufti says with disbelief. "That simply is not true! It defies facts. And I think this is the loudest way I could think of to send that message."
Speakers touched on themes of tolerance, peace and respect. One of them, Illinois State Representative Jehan Gordon-Booth, said her Christian mother gave her a Muslim name to honor Jehan Sadat, wife of slain Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
"We don't have to compromise what we believe to show admiration and love for us all," she told hundreds gathered in the gymnasium.
The event an overflow crowd, mostly of non-Muslims. Organizers offered a video live stream of the event to those who could not fit into the gym.
"Mosques are not unwelcome places, they are not closed places, they are very open places and what essentially Muslims do in mosques is pray, play, socialize and have fun," Mufti explained.
Back in Chicago, the large open space inside the Muslim Community Center is rapidly filling as the time for Friday prayers draws near. The surrounding hallways become just as packed as the prayer space.
The crowded worship service hints at the size of Illinois' Muslim American population. Of the state's 12.8 million residents, more than 400,000 identified as Muslim, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies reported in 2010. Their ranks are growing.
The Pew Research Center earlier this year estimated the United States had approximately 3.3 million Muslims, about 1 percent of the population. The center predicts Muslims, the world's fastest-growing religious group, could equal the number of Christians worldwide by 2050.
As Saif Mazhar prepares to settle in for Friday prayers, he says he hopes that visitors walk away with an understanding not only of his religion but of U.S. members of the faith.
"We're all American, and we love America. And we're part of America."