In a patch of woods in Richmond Heights, about a dozen boys and troop leaders are getting ready to build a cooking fire, trying to use stones not covered in ants.
“You done woke up the family,” one scout says, laughing.
And trying to remember what it takes to build a fire, and then light the fire.
This is the first time Troop 2690 has come together for a kind of crash-course in scouting since forming in July.
What makes the troop pioneering, in a sense, is that it’s the first troop chartered to northeast Ohio mosques, or Masajid.
Isa Abdul Matin is the scoutmaster.
“When I was a kid, I wasn’t Muslim then. I think everyone has the preconceived notion that the Boy Scouts are Christian-based,” says scoutmaster Isa Abdul Matin. “So you kind of like feel like, you know, if I do become a Boy Scout, maybe I can’t be myself. Then I found out that yes, we can be ourselves, and that was like attractive.”
“So here we are,” Matin says, laughing. “Muslim Boy Scouts!”
Scout troops can be sponsored or chartered by all kinds of organizations, including non-profits, churches, synagogues, or mosques.
Three Cleveland-area mosques have contributed boys to this troop, including the Muslim Association of Cleveland East, or MACE.
Muhammad Samad, who heads the board of trustees for MACE, helped organize this troop, which has mostly African-American members.
“There were some members of the community that never even thought about the Boy Scouts, because it was always looked upon as not only a Christian, but to be quite frank a lily-white organization that wasn’t open to a diverse group of people, especially the Muslim community,” Samad says.
Part of this first outing included learning about knife safety from a professional scouter with the Lake Erie Council, and carving sticks to cook bread twists on the fire.
“When you have a knife, you hear it called different things: the blood circle, or the death circle—no one should be near you,” the scout leader says.
Samad says it took patience, and someone not giving up on this effort, to finally form the troop and fill a need.
“Even though that we all went to the mosque, there was no connection with the other mosques in the Cleveland-area, and it’s important in any faith-based community that there be some connection,” he says. “But there was nothing for the Muslim community on a regular basis for the young boys. So I had always thought that the Boys Scouts, which already had its organizational structure, was a good resource to reach out to.”
Boy Scouts of America has more than 5,000 scouts who are Muslim, about half of those are in the more than 100 troops chartered by mosques.
Ohio only has four or five such troops, according to the National Islamic Committee on Scouting.
Informational videos for prospective scouts emphasize the role of faith in scouting, and the 12th point of the Scout Law: A Scout is Reverent.
Faith is a big part of the appeal for Samad.
“Duty to God, being reverent towards God and towards the Earth and fellow humans, so it kind of is a perfect opportunity for us to take advantage of the scout organization, and emphasize with these young men how Islam is very similar to what the Boy Scouts is trying to do,” Samad says.
Junayd and Numayar, Matin’s grandchildren who are helping to build a fire and cook the bread twists, have only positive things to say about the group.
“I think it’s a good experience, because I really like doing outdoorsy stuff, and I was really looking forward to it like right when my mom told me,” Junayd says.
“It’s really fun, like we get to play games and do a lot of activities and stuff,” Numayar says.
Matin admits this troop may raise eyebrows from some.
“I can tell, now, you know, because we’re the first troop. It’s gonna be like, ‘Muslim Boy Scouts… hmm?’ I guess what we have to do is be ourselves, and not try to be anything other than who we are, and people can see us for what we are and what we do, and you’ll see an acceptance,” Matin says. “Because honestly, the best neighbor you could probably ever have is a Muslim. I’m gonna tell you the truth.”
Matin says xenophobic or Islamophobic rhetoric is just propaganda. And perhaps this scout troop could be an icebreaker to changing opinions.
“Any time you can take a group of people or religion and damn it without knowing about it, then that’s your problem,” Matin says. “You have to understand. And once you understand what we’re all about, then it’s almost like you know you would love to be a part of us, or even help us.”