Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Oct. 3, 2008

One at a time

Mahnaz Shabbir stepped to the front of the room, smiled and said, "Salaam alaikum," then explained it means "peace to you" in Arabic.

I invited her to the K-State campus last week to participate in Community Cultural Harmony Week, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.

Mrs. Shabbir - a Muslim, the mother of four boys ranging from age 8 to 26 and the owner of a strategic management consulting firm in Overland Park - was born in the United States and has lived in the Kansas City area for more than 25 years. Her parents came to the U.S. from India in the 1950s.

She has given more than 100 lectures locally, nationally and internationally to organizations interested in knowing more about diversity issues. She is frequent lecturer at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, sharing her knowledge about Islam with officers before they are deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. She is also involved in the Boy Scouts and the Overland Park Rotary.

Although she has experienced prejudice because of her religion since she was a little girl, she said the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, brought out more negativity than ever. Her young sons were insulted by fellow classmates, who accused them and their father of being the perpetrators of 9/11 just because they were Muslims.

But her family's experience is not unique. Seventy percent of Muslims have experienced some form of hostility since 9/11, Mrs. Shabbir said.

According to recent surveys, one-fourth of Americans harbor prejudice against Muslims, one-half have negative views of Islam and many believe Muslims should carry special identification cards, that mosques should be monitored and that Islam is a religion of violence.

The actions of a few who claim to be Muslims have meant that many people don't differentiate between the religion - Islam - and those who practice it - Muslims, she said.

"The events of 9/11 did NOT follow the teachings of Islam,"she said. "Terrorism and the killing of innocents is condemned. In Islam, if you kill one person it is as if you killed all of humanity."

Media images - in books, news reports and movies - don't do much to dispel negative stereotypes of Muslims, often showing sword-wielding, turban-wearing fanatics or meek, black-enshrouded women submitting to the demands of their dominating husbands .

"So where do we go from here?" Mrs. Shabbir said. "We have to have open minds and to educate ourselves. We also need to be more vigilant about correcting misinformation that we see or hear in the media."

She explained the five pillars of Islam: Shahada - the fundamental belief in the unity of God and bearing witness of this belief; Salah - praying five times a day; Zakat - setting aside a proportion of one's possessions for charity; Sawm - fasting from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, the ninth lunar calendar month; and Hajj - pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) in Saudi Arabia once in a lifetime for those who are physically and financially able to do so.

During the month of Ramadan, which ended earlier this week, Muslims concentrate on their faith. During the Fast of Ramadan, Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink during the daylight hours. Smoking and sexual relations are also forbidden during fasting. At the end of each day, the fast is broken with prayer and a meal called the iftar. The month of Ramadan is also when it is believed the Qur'an was sent from heaven as guidance.

At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast.

"It's a holiday of thanksgiving, of visiting with family and friends, of eating special dishes and of giving small treats to children," Mrs. Shabbir said.

Islam, an Arabic word meaning peace, is one of the Abrahamic faiths, which also includes Christianity and Judaism. It has the second-largest number of adherents, next to Christianity. Muslims come from many countries, but the largest concentration comes from India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. About 20 percent of Muslims come from the Middle East and 38 percent are African American. Not all Arabs are Muslims, she said, and in fact, many Arabs are Christians.

"As an American Muslim woman, I would like the media to show balanced and accurate stories," she said.

In terms of negative stereotypes of Muslim women, Western media emphasize a few examples of unjust behavior in the Islam world and ignore the fact that Islam was the first religion to accord women equal rights, she said.

"The Hijab (head covering) is meant to protect women, not oppress them," she said, "and it can be worn or not, depending on the country, although some countries are much more strict about it."

At the end of Mrs. Shabbir's remarks, a student approached her. He told her that his father had heard her at a previous lecture at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth and recommended that he listen to her presentation, too.

"And that is what this is all about," she told me later. "It is about educating people, one at a time."

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