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Religious misperceptions: Local Muslims work to educate the public about Islam

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Signs that say, “we love our neighbors” (written in crayon) and, “we support you, we love you, we embrace you,” decorate the open metal gates of the Mosque of Nasreen in San Luis Obispo. Men young and old are chatting behind the big glass doors that lead to the main room for prayer. Others take their spots on a dark red rug, getting ready for prayer on a rainy April day.

TOGETHER:  The Mosque of Nasreen is not only a place of worship but a place where Muslim community members can come together and socialize with one another. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • TOGETHER: The Mosque of Nasreen is not only a place of worship but a place where Muslim community members can come together and socialize with one another.

The women attending prayer are in a separate room, beyond a door and down a short hall. They’re wearing yellow, orange, brown, and pink scarves on their heads. At the front of the room is a wide flat screen Sony TV broadcasting the Friday prayer from the main room.

It’s Ahmed Deif’s turn to lead prayer that Friday. He’s one of the mosque’s temporary imams, and he’s also an assistant professor of industrial technology and packaging at Cal Poly. He says the separation of men and women during prayer isn’t mandated, but it is about respect.

“Islam doesn’t say that men and women are separated or aren’t equal, it’s just in the context of prayer that they are in separate parts of the mosque. It has nothing at all to do with men and women not being equal, it’s not like that,” Deif says.

In some mosques men and women might pray together, but men would be in the first few rows with women and children in the back. The seating is done this way because it wouldn’t be modest for men to see the lower body of a woman when she is on her knees bowing during prayer. The separation of genders is a change that happened over time, but Deif says it only adds to the religious sentiment that women should be respected.

Now, many mosques either have curtains or a type of screen giving men and women privacy or separate rooms entirely. Either way, there is one imam who conducts prayers for all mosque attendees.

A misperception about the way men and women are treated differently is just one of many misconceptions that people have about Islam and the Muslim community, Deif says.

Although Muslims in SLO say they feel an overall welcoming from county residents, there are individuals who say they have experienced prejudice because of the religion they practice. But that hasn’t stopped the local Muslims from working with other organizations and religious groups to make positive strides in how the community perceives them.

Religious views

The Mosque of Nasreen is the only place of worship for Muslims in SLO County. It was established in June 2008 in memory of Nasreen Iqbal, a prominent figure in the community who died of cancer.

MEMORY:  The Mosque of Nasreen was built in June 2008 in memory of Nasreen Iqbal, a prominent figure in the Muslim community. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • MEMORY: The Mosque of Nasreen was built in June 2008 in memory of Nasreen Iqbal, a prominent figure in the Muslim community.

Hisham Assal has been a part of the congregation since it opened and said the Iqbal family had plans to create a mosque for some time, as there wasn’t one in the area. Before the mosque took shape, imams were renting open spaces to hold weekly Friday prayer and other activities. He said after Nasreen’s passing, it was suggested to the family that they establish the building in her honor.

“She was a symbol of generosity and kindness for the community and great support for her family. Her passing touched everyone who knew her or knew anyone in her family,” he said.

The mosque feels like home, Assal said. It’s a place where he can practice his religion, meet other community members, and socialize.

During this particular Friday in April, the congregation is small, but Deif says attendance varies depending on the day of the week. About 30 men and women, mostly men, have come together on this day.

Before prayer, Deif speaks to the congregation about the gas attack in Syria that occurred the first week of April. With a heavy voice, he speaks about the innocent lives that were taken and his disbelief at an attack of that magnitude. He says it made him reflect on the first thing he learned about the teachings of Islam—being good to others. Deif remembers that he was excited to begin learning about his religion but he had the wrong approach.

“I was told that these things can come easily, the books are there. But before learning about how to be a Muslim, I needed to learn about being a good human being,” he says. “The core essence of Islam is how to be a human being with good character.”

Understanding Islam, its origins, and message is part of Stephen Lloyd-Moffett’s teachings. He’s a professor of religious studies at Cal Poly and gives lectures in the community about various religious topics—lately, he’s been talking about Islam. He teaches about the similar message that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam share.

“The basic notion that there’s one God in the universe and humans have been created to follow that will, that is the message of Islam,” Lloyd-Moffett said.

The Quran, the religious text of Islam, is full of recitations—God speaking to humanity through the mouth of Muhammad. People memorize what Muhammad said and that’s the basis of the Quran.

According to Lloyd-Moffett, the message of the Quran is that there is one God, one creator, and people should follow his will. The word Islam simply means peace, and in this case, it’s the peace that’s achieved when someone realizes that God is the creator and he has a will for each individual.

Personal realization

Muslims live their life by God’s will—insha’Allah. One Cal Poly student found her own acceptance and realization of her faith during her college years, even though she had grown up as a practicing Muslim.

FAITH:  Men who attend prayer at the Mosque of Nasreen sit in the front room of the Mosque while women watch prayer from a separate room. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • FAITH: Men who attend prayer at the Mosque of Nasreen sit in the front room of the Mosque while women watch prayer from a separate room.

Rubia Siddiqi sat at a big table that opened up by chance on a busy day at SLO Donut Company. The shop was active with families enjoying a morning treat and students quietly studying. Siddiqi is 22 and a grad student at Cal Poly studying environmental engineering. She’s also the president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) on campus. With a warm personality and a wide smile that formed at the end of every sentence, Siddiqi said that she wasn’t always involved with the Muslim community on campus.

She grew up in Davis with her parents and siblings, keeping close ties to the Muslim community. Born in Pakistan, Siddiqi’s family moved to California when she was about 3 years old. Although the family was in a different country, the presence of their culture was a prominent part of growing up.

“They moved here when they were a lot older, and they were used to being surrounded in that culture so they wanted to make sure that we were connected to our roots,” she said.

Siddiqi and her family attended their local mosque and participated in religious activities. In high school, Siddiqi was part of an MSA but she said it wasn’t as prominent or serious as a college chapter. Her prior interest in membership didn’t continue into college.

“I wasn’t really looking for Muslim friends, I kind of wanted to do my own thing and discover new friends on my own and not really delve into that side of the school,” Siddiqi said.

Her first two years of college marked a time when Siddiqi questioned whether Islam was a faith that she could devote herself to.

“I’ve always had that concrete background of what my religion is, but I never really thought about it because it’s just what I’ve grown up with,” she said.

But once she started meeting different MSA members and living with a few, she also started attending meetings. After some research and insightful conversations about the religion, she decided she wanted to embrace her identity completely and submit to Islam. She said one way she felt she could display her personal connection to God was by starting to wear the hijab every day, not just during Friday prayer. A hijab is a covering (a scarf) that is a symbol of modesty within the Muslim culture.

Committing to wearing the hijab was a decision Siddiqi thought about for a year.

Siddiqi knew that at some point in her life, she would wear a hijab because her mom wears one all the time, but she didn’t understand the significance it would have for her. She followed through with her decision one Friday after finals week at school.

“I used to see other Muslim women wearing the hijab and think they are so beautiful, they’re so confident in themselves, and I wanted to be a part of that,” she said.

She wore a charcoal-colored scarf with dark blue designs on it that day at SLODoCo. It was wrapped around her head and resting on her shoulders; not a single strand of hair was visible.

“I wanted to completely embrace my religion and one of the biggest signs of that is wearing the hijab,” Siddiqi said. “I wanted people, when they see me, that their first impression to be, ‘She’s a Muslim.’”

First impressions are important to Siddiqi, especially with the current negative connotations of terrorism that seem to be stuck to Muslims and Islam. But Siddiqi said, in her mind, Islam is about being a good person and being good to others.

“It’s a responsibility that I have chosen to take on, but it already aligns with Islam. So it’s like any responsibility, it’s always on my mind,” she said.

Siddiqi finds it difficult to understand that she and the rest of the Muslim population are constantly being connected to acts of terrorism or ISIS, when the proprietors of violent acts are a small segment of people.

Changed climate

While Siddiqi hasn’t felt the sting of discrimination that’s connected with preconceived notions about Islam, others have. Noah Kolkailah, for instance, was harassed for wearing her hijab.

INCLUSIVE:  Members from the SLO community have left notes of support and love for their Muslim neighbors. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • INCLUSIVE: Members from the SLO community have left notes of support and love for their Muslim neighbors.

Kolkailah is the vice principal at Mission College Preparatory Catholic High School in San Luis Obispo. She’s also a wife and mother to two young girls. She said she gets along well with her colleagues and students because they know who she is. But as a Muslim female, she’s had some unwelcomed experiences outside the halls of the school.

“When we’re out in public, people don’t know me and I have to say that they don’t have an interest in knowing me and knowing who I am. They just have this block that tells them to put up this wall,” Kolkailah said.

The judgment, she said, is connected to the media’s coverage of Muslims, which are mostly news clips of terrorist attacks.

“People choose to educate themselves through Fox News—or mis-educate themselves through Fox News—and their mind is already set,” Kolkailah said.

The issue, she said, is that a lot of people don’t question the source of the information being fed to them and whether it’s trustworthy.

Judgments made based on one-sided information have dictated how different groups of people are treated for a long time, but most recently those judgments seem to be largely focused on the Muslim population. Kolkailah said it really sunk in after the November 2016 election—that’s when she felt her life change.

“The morning after we found out the results, I woke up feeling like I was in a different place; it wasn’t the country that I learned to love, it was a different world,” she said. “And we were going to embark on a different life.”

What reinforced this new looming feeling was a night out with her family.

Kolkailah, her family, and friends were leaving a restaurant when they noticed a couple of drunk people inside a big truck outside in the parking lot. As Kolkailah and her group were approaching their car, they heard the car dwellers yelling out their window, “Anybody want a ride?”

“Then they saw us with our hijabs on, and from the window, they said ‘Oh, you’re Muslim.’ They flipped us off and cussed us out,” she said. “That night just reinforced that we were going to be targeted. And discriminating against us is now not only OK but almost encouraged. I mean, it’s encouraged if your leader does it.”

As President Donald Trump’s administration took shape, he signed an executive order banning travel from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Although that ban was blocked by judicial order—and so was the most recent iteration of a similar executive order—it’s still frustrating for Kolkailah.

She said the majority of the population that’s being discriminated against has nothing to do with violent acts occurring in different parts of the world by people who identify themselves as Muslim.

“I say it that way because Islam teaches against violence; it’s a religion of peace,” she said.

She said she’s grateful to live in the city of SLO, which is populated with people who want to learn about each other and want to learn about what they hear from the media.

“I love it when people ask questions, because that is an invitation, an opportunity for me to explain, to educate, and to have a voice,” Kolkailah said.

Learning about each other

One group asking questions is Opening Doors of Interfaith Understanding. Alternating between their locations, the Mosque of Nasreen, the First Presbyterian Church San Luis Obispo, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and the Congregation of Beth David invite people to meet and learn about one another. Bud Beecher is a steering member of the group and one of its founders.

WELCOME:  Opening Doors of Interfaith Understanding is holding its next meeting June 26 at the Mosque of Nasreen. Contact Bud Beecher at lbeecher@calpoly.edu to sign up for the group’s email list.
  • WELCOME: Opening Doors of Interfaith Understanding is holding its next meeting June 26 at the Mosque of Nasreen. Contact Bud Beecher at lbeecher@calpoly.edu to sign up for the group’s email list.

He said the group has three goals: to talk about a book that relates to some aspect of one of the religious groups, to have a conversation about a religious holiday to broaden each other’s understanding, and to share a meal and get to know one another. The main focus of the group is to understand the background of each walk of life—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim.

“I come from the mindset where you can either talk with people and learn from them or you can isolate yourself,” Beecher said.

Beecher said he makes one thing clear: The group has nothing to do with any type of political conversations.

“We are not involved in the political turmoil of domestic or foreign policy, we believe that we’re the third way. That we don’t have to be embroiled in the dismissive polarizing, however you want to describe the political scene,” he said.

The group isn’t about tolerance—Beecher doesn’t like that term because he says it’s associated with political speech. The group is about being able to understand and learn from one another.

“So that, to me, is the outstanding thing that we’ve accomplished. We’re really aware of profound differences of the three faiths but what we can talk about is our collective humanity, the social part, and we can appreciate what we have in common,” he said.

That’s all that Deif from the Mosque of Nasreen is asking of the SLO community, for people to take the time and have a conversation with a Muslim to learn about the culture and religion from them.

“I believe fully that the Muslim narrative was hijacked, and unfortunately for decades, the American community and society has been hearing of Muslims from non-Muslims,” he said.

Deif said the Muslim community is open to dialogue and welcomes people to go to the source, talk to a Muslim.

“The positive thing to do now is to stand up as Muslims, to speak about ourselves, and I’m asking every single American citizen to be fair enough to listen to the Muslim narrative from Muslims,” he said.

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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