It all started with a dinner conversation among a half-dozen Muslim men and women at Saima Bhutta’s Moorestown home in 2015.
Days before, a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., had left 14 people dead — including a Muslim couple whom police identified as the perpetrators.
Islamophobia was again rearing its ugly head nationally, and members of South Jersey’s diverse and somewhat diffuse Muslim community felt the need to be clearly heard.
So the dinner menu included some brainstorming along with the biryani.
“We decided the most important thing we can do is to unite,” recalled Syed Mohammed, who was at the table. “Our ways of praying may be different, our ways of dressing may be different, but at the end of the day we can make a difference by being together in a great country like the U.S.”
On Sunday, the Muslim Federation of South Jersey made its public debut as Mohammed, the group’s president, and about 200 men and women gathered at the Woodcrest Country Club in Cherry Hill.
Mohammed, a Cherry Hill businessman, is credited with the concept of a secular entity to connect South Jersey’s estimated 7,000 Muslim families, who attend different mosques, are members of different denominations, and hail from various parts of the globe.
Organizers see the federation as a platform for developing cultural, recreational, or other programs and services with the needs of younger Muslims in mind. It also may help put the community on the map, literally: Construction of a community center is a possibility.
Many of those involved in the effort are Sunni Muslim immigrants from South Asia, although other Muslim denominations and countries of origin also were represented at the sunny afternoon of speeches, music, food, and fellowship.
Westerners may see Muslims as monolithic, but they are racially, ethnically, linguistically, and sartorially diverse. Which made for a lively scene Sunday.
“This is like a dream come true to me,” said Habib Quraishi, a retired engineer who lives in Voorhees and immigrated to the United States 40 years ago from Bangladesh. He also attended the first dinner.
“It’s been a long struggle,” he said.
One of the challenges has been “a lot of confusion” about the federation’s mission, said Asim Shafi, a software sales executive who was Sunday’s host.
“Some people were asking, ‘Is this a religious organization? Then there’s no need for it, because we’ve got the mosques,'” said Shafi, 49, of Cherry Hill. “It took us quite a while to communicate clearly to folks that the federation is serving a different purpose, to enable us to engage better civically.”
Muslims have lived in America for centuries and in South Jersey for decades. Many in the room at Woodcrest belong to the pioneering generation of professionals who arrived in the 1970s and ’80s, have done well — and hope to ensure that their children and grandchildren will be able to do the same.
“We don’t want our kids to feel they aren’t a part of this country,” said Misha Alkiyal, a small business owner who lives in Cherry Hill.
The growth in South Jersey’s Muslim population “has been remarkable,” said Bhutta, a physician’s assistant and mother of three who can recall when it seemed possible to “meet everybody” in the community.
That’s no longer practical, although she and others pointed out that the federation can function as a social network and an information exchange about special events and volunteer opportunities.
The rise of a substantial Muslim community in South Jersey, where there are a half-dozen mosques and schools, also has also been an opportunity for non-Muslims, like me, to interact with people we might otherwise never encounter.
Only in the last few years have I gotten to know local Muslims, such as the Iraqi-born poet Faleeha Hassan.
But as Muslims have become more visible, Islam has become a political issue for some of their fellow Americans.
“The public is being given an image that’s very highly charged and suits the purposes of those who are perpetuating it. The best way to change the narrative is to really show people who we are,” said Eajaz Rawoof, one of the speakers Sunday.
Said Talhah Khan, 19, who grew up in Moorestown and is studying finance at Rowan University: “There’s a lot of bad publicity going on. We want to build bridges, instead of walls.”
While the federation is neither partisan nor overtly political, several elected officials, including Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D., Camden) and Camden County Freeholders Jeff Nash and Susan Shin Angulo, both Democrats, attended the gathering and expressed support for its mission.
Shafi and others involved in Sunday’s event said they had gotten encouragement and advice from Jewish friends and associates.
And I was struck by the choice of venue: The Woodcrest Country Club opened in 1929, when Jewish golfers were restricted from playing elsewhere.
So while the choice may not have been intentionally symbolic, “it’s very fitting,” said Shafi.