Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Islamic Center class to dispel


From todays Tennessean

Staff Writer

When Awadh Binhazim holds diversity training in the Nashville area, he asks his students what comes to mind when they hear the word Muslim.

Many say ''murderer,'' ''terrorist'' or ''bad religion.''

To counter these beliefs, Binhazim and other leaders of the Islamic Center of Nashville will hold free weekly classes on Islam at Tennessee State University starting next month. As outreach director of the center, it's Binhazim's job to promote understanding of the Islamic faith in the community — one of the center's primary missions.

''We want to say to people that they can't use the actions of a few to judge the faith of 1.5 billion people,'' Binhazim said. ''Our religion does not pro- mote violence and doesn't accept anything related to terrorism.''

Leaders of the center say misunderstanding and a lack of knowledge have contributed to the negative views some have of Muslims.

The first step toward eliminating the misunderstandings surrounding Islam is to ''open the doors of dialogue with non-Muslims,'' said Amir Arain, an Islamic Center board member and Vanderbilt University neurology professor.

''The most common misconception is that Islam preaches terrorism and intolerance and teaches violence, which are quite contrary to Islamic beliefs,'' Arain said. ''People think it's a closed society and we don't want to assimilate. But Islam teaches peace, justice and peaceful coexistence.''

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, two local mosques were vandalized and some local Muslims were harassed in public, Binhazim said. Since then, he said that outward hostility has waned but negative views of Muslims persist.

''There's a sense that when someone knows you're Muslim, some people start looking at you in a suspicious way,'' he said.

While the classes are designed for non-Muslims, organizers say some of those within the faith need more information on their religion to explain it to others accurately.

In the workplace, at school and in the community, many people ask Muslims about their faith and Islamic views on war and terrorism. In Binhazim's view, these questions offer local Muslims an opportunity to dispel negative stereotypes and promote understanding.

Organizers also want to explain to the community why civil rights are so important to local Muslims. Some members of the center have been interrogated by the FBI and released without charges, while a few others have had their bank accounts closed with no explanation, leaders of the center said.

This has happened as the federal government has increased its scrutiny of mosques and Islamic communities.

A Cornell University poll released this month also found that many Americans want the government to limit the rights and liberties of Muslims.

The survey found that 44% of Americans believe the U.S. government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim Americans through racial profiling, undercover law enforcement and surveillance, or requirements to register their whereabouts.

The nationwide telephone poll of 715 people also found that those who paid the most attention to television news were more likely to support the restrictions. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

Binhazim said he believes many people form their opinions of Muslims from ''hyped-up misconceptions'' they see in the news. But, he said, there's a difference between religious beliefs and foreign policy.

''We know there are thousands dead in Iraq who are predominantly civilians, and no one is saying Christians are responsible for that,'' he said. ''This is the United States foreign policy, not the Christian foreign policy.''

Sheikh Abdulhakim Ali Mohamed, Imam of the local center and one of the instructors of the course, agreed that some people see Islam as a political movement rather than a religious faith and view violence in the Middle East as a reflection of that faith.

He said there are also misconceptions about the United States in the Middle East as a result of negative images of Americans in the Islamic press.

''In the past, when I'd go back, people would say I was lucky to live here,'' said Mohamed, who has lived in the United States for 34 years. ''Now people want to know why I'm still here, and ask me if I'm beaten, if people threaten to kill me and if they throw rocks at me.''

Mohamed said America is his home and he hopes to do all he can to promote peace and understanding here.

In the class, Mohamed said he will cover the Islamic belief that God is one, the requirement to pray five times daily, and the Five Pillars of Islam — the acknowledgement of God, prayer, the paying of alms, fasting, and a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The classes will also focus on Muslim views of American social issues such as marriage, divorce, homosexuality, and the meaning of family values.

''It's not about converting people,'' Mohamed said. ''It's about helping people understand us. There's an Arabic saying that goes, 'What you do not know, you fear.' ''

Holly Edwards can be reached at 259-8035 or hedwards@tennessean.com.

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