One effect of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington has been an increase in the number of Americans who want to learn more about Muslim faith and culture. Enrollment in Arabic classes is up, some mosques in the United States say schools call more often wanting to bring students for a visit, and many churches are holding interfaith forums where Muslims and non-Muslims learn about each other.
Organizers of the forum, titled "Chicagoans and Islam," said they wanted to make history. They hoped that people who came as strangers might leave with a better understanding of each other. So, as people arrived in groups, they were urged not to be seated as groups. "Leave seats next to you so people from other delegations can sit with you, so that later in the meeting we can talk to each other," said an organizer.
The event was co-sponsored by United Power for Action and Justice, a Chicago democracy and justice organization, and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. Kareem Irfan is the Council's chairman. He says there is a great need for Americans to get to know one another. He says ignorance is behind much of the harassment and violence directed against some Muslims after the September 11 attacks. "We are convinced that the actions that are happening against Muslims and against Islam are, in general, driven by ignorance and anger and fear," he said. "We hope that we can counteract by knowledge, by getting to know one another on a one-on-one basis."
About two thirds of those in the auditorium were Muslim. Some, like Raghad Nahhas, said they want non-Muslims to learn more about who they are - and that the vast majority of Muslims do not side with the September 11 terrorists or anyone else who wants to harm Americans. "Just to show that the people who did this were not good people, probably did not have a heart," she said. "It is not something that is acceptable at all."
Many non-Muslims who attended said they knew little about Muslims. John Zigmond says Arabs seem to be the latest group of outsiders in America, just as, he says, black Americans were considered outsiders in his suburb when he was growing up. "We normally look at the obvious: skin color, appearance, apparel, dialect, but if we get beneath that, I think we will find that we are very similar," said John Zigmond.
Pairs of speakers - one Muslim, one non-Muslim - talked about similar struggles they have gone through. Sheila O'Gorman says, just as some Muslims have felt unwelcome in their neighborhoods, so did she and her Irish-Catholic family years ago. "I remember a time when I was five years old and my family of 10 moved into the predominantly Protestant neighborhood of Morgan Park on the South Side of the city," she said. "What my mother thought was her dream home was not the case. She received threatening notes and the police were called."
But instead of listening to speakers, audience members were urged to walk around the room, find someone who looked different, and ask them why their family came to the United States, what kinds of struggles their family has faced, and why they wanted to attend the forum? Conversations ranged from differing styles of prayer, to reactions from co-workers to a woman's traditional Muslim head covering. One Muslim man told a woman he and his family have been yelled at by strangers, but do not regret coming to America from their native country.
Organizers of this event hope the conversations begun here will continue in the audience members', homes and neighborhoods. They plan to have at least four more similar events during the next few months.