‘Meet a Mus­lim’ hopes to dis­pel mis­con­cep­tions

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY KRISTIN J. BEN­DER

FRE­MONT, CALIF. | When Moina Shaiq re­al­ized even her friends were scared to ask her about her re­li­gion for fear of of­fend­ing her or sound­ing un­e­d­u­cated, she put an ad­ver­tise­ment in a Cal­i­for­nia news­pa­per: “Ques­tions and an­swers about be­ing Mus­lim.”

The ad of­fered ideas for ques­tions: Are women op­pressed in Islam? What is the Is­lamic view of ter­ror­ism? How does Islam view other re­li­gions?

She set up shop at a cof­fee house in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area city of Fre­mont, hop­ing for good at­ten­dance, but brought her lap­top to do some work in case no one showed. To her sur­prise, about 100 peo­ple turned out that day last year, and her “Meet a Mus­lim” pro­gram was born.

“It was over over­whelm­ing,” said Ms. Shaiq, a mother of four and grand­mother. “Fre­mont is so di­verse, you will see women in hi­jab on the streets all the time. I didn’t think peo­ple here would be in­ter­ested or even need to know about Mus­lims.”

Ms. Shaiq has since spo­ken about be­ing Mus­lim and an­swered ques­tions at dozens of li­braries, pizza par­lors and cof­fee shops in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area. She re­cently ex­panded Meet a Mus­lim to churches, ser­vice clubs and pri­vate homes, and trav­eled to Arizona and At­lanta with the pro­gram.

She gives the talks once or twice a week on her own time and her own dime to break down stereo­types.

Sim­i­lar pro­grams emerged after 9/11, when many Mus­lims felt the need to en­gage with their fel­low Amer­i­cans to dis­pel neg­a­tive per­cep­tions of their faith. They’ve seen a resur­gence with a re­cent uptick in anti-Mus­lim crimes.

Ear­lier this year, for in­stance, Mus­lim and former U.S. Marine Man­soor Shams trav­eled the coun­try with a sign that read “I’m a Mus­lim and a U.S. Marine, Ask Me Any­thing.”

In Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, Mona Hay­dar and her hus­band set up a booth out­side a li­brary in 2015 with cof­fee, dough­nuts and a sign that stated “Ask a Mus­lim.”

Ms. Shaiq said she started her pro­gram to ed­u­cate peo­ple about her faith and cul­ture while ad­dress­ing peo­ple’s mis­con­cep­tions and stereo­types.

She ex­plains the im­por­tance of the hi­jab (head scarf) or niqab (face cov­er­ing), the dif­fer­ences be­tween Sun­nis and Shias (the two main sects of Islam), the rights of women in Islam, and what it’s like to be an Amer­i­can Mus­lim to­day.

At a re­cent Ro­tary club meet­ing in Fre­mont, a man asked how she thinks peo­ple can com­bat Mus­lim ex­trem­ism.

“This is where you start,” Ms. Shaiq said. “You un­der­stand what the faith is.”

Re­cent anti-Mus­lim in­ci­dents across the U.S. in­clude ar­son at­tacks, van­dal­ism, ha­rass­ment and school bul­ly­ing. In May, au­thor­i­ties in Port­land, Ore­gon, say a man killed two men and wounded a third after they tried to stop his anti-Mus­lim tirade.

Ms. Shaiq her­self has faced threats at her events. One man in At­lanta warned he would “slit her throat” if she said some­thing he didn’t like. He lis­tened to the dis­cus­sion, never asked a ques­tion and then left.

“That was scary,” Ms. Shaiq said. Ini­tia­tives like Meet a Mus­lim are im­por­tant at “this time of height­ened fear and xeno­pho­bia,” said Zainab Arain, who works to mon­i­tor and com­bat Is­lam­o­pho­bia with the Coun­cil on Amer­i­can-Is­lamic Re­la­tions, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Mus­lim ad­vo­cacy group.

“An ef­fec­tive way to push back against that, es­pe­cially at a lo­cal level, is to gather peo­ple and have them get to know one an­other,” Ms. Arain said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Moina Shaiq speaks to a man after a “Meet a Mus­lim” event in Cal­i­for­nia. She dis­cussed the im­por­tance of the hi­jab and the niqab as well as the dif­fer­ences be­tween Sun­nis and Shias.

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