Muslims across Minnesota gathered this weekend for one of Islam’s major religious holidays, one rooted in prayer, charity, sacrifice to community — and nothing to do with beheadings or violence.
“This is Islam,” said Makram El-Amin, the imam at Masjid An-Nur mosque in north Minneapolis, where families gathered Saturday for a morning of prayer and socializing. “All Muslims across the world are observing this at the same time. It’s the opposite of a minute group in Syria and Iraq perpetrating crimes in the name of Islam.”
Horrified that Islam is being linked to fanatics, Muslims in Minnesota and across the nation have been working — once again — to set the record straight through public education, social media and community events.
This weekend’s Eid al-Adha festival, for example, commemorates the story of the prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command. Yet most people are not aware that Abraham is considered a major prophet in Islam, as is Jesus, say local Muslim leaders.
Lori Saroya, executive director of the Minnesota Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said Muslim groups have tried to be proactive in fighting misconceptions about their faith, even as the public is bombarded with grisly images of murders and kidnappings at the hands of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Leaders from about 50 Muslim organizations convened several weeks ago, she said, to discuss everything from community outreach to youth activities to creating a community roundtable to regularly bring together Muslim leaders with local government officials, she said.
Community groups also are harnessing their public activities to remind Minnesotans that ISIL is not Islam. The Islamic Resource Group, for example, set up its educational exhibit at the Minnesota Museum of American Art on Friday before it screened the film “Reel Bad Arabs: Images of Arabs and Muslims in Popular Culture.”
“We just keep doing what we’re doing,” said Safiya Balioglu, administrator of the Fridley-based nonprofit. “The exhibit is a good place to draw people in.”
CAIR, meanwhile, will highlight the issue at various outreach events it scheduled long before the ISIL crisis, including the Muslim Youth Leadership Forum later this month. “If we don’t get out there, this is the only dialogue people see,” said Saroya.
State Fair experience
Mashood Yunus found himself on the front lines of public opinion at the Minnesota State Fair this year. The video of the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley went public roughly two days before the fair opened on Aug. 21.
As in previous years, his Minneapolis nonprofit — Building Blocks of Islam — set up a booth under a huge banner reading “One Message, One God, ISLAM, The Religion of All the Prophets.” Yunus tried to engage passersby, asking, “Did you know Jesus was considered a prophet in Islam?”
But unlike the past, the crowd was cool — or worse, he said. Some passersby made a thumbs down gesture, said Yunus. A couple people yelled at him. Most people looked down and walked by. Building Blocks handed out just over 2,000 brochures about Islam, he said, compared with more than 5,000 in other years.
“People this year were not in the mood to discuss this,” he said.
The push to stem “Islamophobia” also is happening nationally. Last week, more than 120 Muslim scholars signed an open letter condemning ISIL and documenting its gross misinterpretation of Islamic teachings. And a younger group of Muslims launched a hashtag campaign, #NotInMyName, to remind the world that ISIL doesn’t represent their religion.
The Muslim American Society of Minnesota is part of a national group that was a signator to the scholars’ letter, said Asad Zaman, society executive director, who is among Muslim leaders engaging social media to fight the misinformation battle.
Among Zaman’s Facebook posts: news articles stating that two British jihadists had ordered “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies” from Amazon.com before heading to Syria last year. “The people being recruited are being recruited because of their poor understanding of Islam,” said Zaman.
As ISIL troops continued their march across Syria and Iraq last week, Zaman spent Friday fasting and preparing for the weekend celebration. His sister was on a pilgrimage to Mecca, an event that schoolchildren in the mosque reenacted last weekend. Said Zaman: “In my mind, the two have nothing in common.”