‘Know Your Muslim Neighbor’ event planned Saturday

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

In the weeks since the terrorist attacks in Paris and California, Maha Ezzeddine and Metro Detroit Muslims quickly noted a backlash.

The Rochester Hills resident said she and others who attend her mosque were “disturbed” by online accounts and media reports of Muslims around the country alleging harassment in schools, on planes and elsewhere. Harsh comments from public figures also alarmed them.

Those incidents spurred members with the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit and Muslim American Society’s local chapter to action.

From 1-5 p.m. Saturday, they’re set to host a “Know Your Muslim Neighbor” event at the Rochester Hills Public Library, 500 Olde Towne. Scheduled are activities such as crafting kaleidoscopes, penning names in Arabic on bookmarks and quizzing an imam about Muslim traditions.

Expected to be the first in a series of such meetings the groups plan across Metro Detroit, the gathering aims to introduce residents to Islam as well as the lives and history of its American followers.

“We want everyone to see a friendly Muslim face amid all of the hate rhetoric that’s going on nationally,” Ezzeddine said. “It’s less about preaching what Islam is and more about meeting neighbors. … We really believed that the solution is not to isolate ourselves but to reach out and for people to see that we’re normal human beings, neighbors, teachers, parents.”

Their initiative arrives as Muslims in Michigan and across the U.S. face growing tensions and a hostile environment.

Amid fears about security screenings in the wake of the Nov. 13 Islamic State attacks in Paris, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved GOP legislation that put up fresh hurdles for Syrian and Iraqi refugees trying to enter the United States. Gov. Rick Snyder suspended efforts to open Michigan to Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war, joining other governors in asking the federal government to examine and toughen security screenings of refugee applicants.

Soon after the shootings in San Bernardino, California, last month, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. — a call that drew rebukes from many, yet found support among others.

Meanwhile, a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey found “Americans’ perceptions of Islam have turned sharply more negative over the past few years.” The national Council on American-Islamic Relations also reported 2015 saw the most incidents of vandalism, destruction or intimidation targeting U.S. mosques since the group started keep track.

CAIR’s Michigan chapter has in recent months fielded more allegations of Muslim youths being bullied and a Metro Detroit mosque reported someone threatened to “kill the entire congregation,” executive director Dawud Walid said.

“There are a lot of people on edge right now.”

Though his group and area mosques have long held community events geared toward educating others about Islam, more such efforts are “very critical at this time,” said Walid, who has been involved in many. “At the end of the day, people are adversaries of what they don’t know. So the opportunity that people have to be able to come to a mosque and just meet Muslims face-to-face cuts a lot of the anti-Muslim sentiments that are being stoked up by our politicians.”

At the Rochester Hills library Saturday, organizers aim to show another, less-publicized side of Islam. Besides art-themed activities, there will be displays chronicling Muslims in U.S. history — including those who fought during the Civil War and other conflicts, Ezzeddine said. “I hope they see Muslims as part of the fabric of the American community.”

Imam Aly Lela of the IAGD said he plans to present “a basic introduction to Islam, one on one: what does the word Islam mean, a brief history of Islam, and what Muslims do, how they pray.”

To clear lingering misunderstandings, he also hopes to cover diversity in the American Muslim community and tackle audience queries about sharia law, women’s roles as well as other topics.

“We have to speak up and reach out to our neighbors and talk about ourselves instead of letting others talk about us,” Lela said. “Studies and statistics show that those who hold negative views about Muslims have never interacted with Muslims before.”

Coordinators intend to schedule other such events in Metro Detroit; a second is planned next month in Canton Township, Ezzeddine said.

“The key to overcoming stereotypes is face-to-face interaction,” she said. “We’re hoping that we’ll make a difference. … That’s always the better approach: to try to be proactive, to try to do our best to be model citizens. By having hope in the goodness of people and knowing that if we can just come together, meet each other, learn about each other, that things will get better.”

mhicks@detroitnews.com

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