As Muslims open mosques, non-Muslims come in droves to show support

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SHAFAQNA – Two meetings happened recently, the first in Kernersville, the second in Clemmons. In the first one, a small group of conservatives painted Muslims as a problem, the plotters, the would-be terrorists. In the second, on Friday, Muslims opened their mosques, reaching out, trying to build trust.

The Kernersville group did not show up.

“There are people we need to talk to that are not in this room,” said Wasif Qureshi, president emeritus of the Islamic Center of Greensboro, who was visiting to participate in the open-door event at the Annoor Islamic Center here. Rather, a large crowd showed up made up mostly of ardent supporters, more than 200, spurred by an invitation from the center and Interfaith Winston-Salem.

All three mosques in Forsyth County — the Annoor Islamic Center, the Community Mosque on Waughtown Street and Masjid Al-Muminun on Harriet Tubman Drive — opened their doors. It was their way of responding to the stinging — and violent — comments made at the Kernersville meeting, which was first reported by the Triad City Beat weekly newspaper.

At the Community Mosque in southeastern Winston-Salem, Imam Khalid Griggs said there were about 20 new faces at the prayer service, non-Muslims supporting Muslims.

“They felt it was important to come and let us know the hateful words spoken (in Kernersville) were not felt by everyone in the community,” Griggs said. “Many stayed and ate and talked with us afterward. It was very positive.”

Most had never attended a mosque, he said.

Their presence was encouraging, he said, particularly after comments made by President Donald Trump and the people at the Kernersville meeting.

Citing national security and a need to review the federal government’s vetting of refugees, Trump signed an executive order last month that temporarily froze the U.S. refugee program, indefinitely banned Syrian refugees and banned for three months citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

The executive order has since by blocked in federal court by a lawsuit brought by the states of Washington and Minnesota against the Trump administration — but Trump has signaled that he is working on a new executive order rather than pursue a legal fight.

“The common feeling was that (the comments were) a byproduct of the empowerment that many people felt with the language of our current president targeting Muslims,” Griggs said. “It’s created a climate of hatred.”

Efforts to contact the Al-Muminun mosque were unsuccessful.

At Annoor, members said they have seldom seen the mosque as packed as it was Friday for service and a town hall meeting afterward.

Hamdy Radwan, the chairman of the Islamic center’s council, led the service, providing a synopsis on what it has been like to be on the receiving end of other people’s suspicions about Muslims. At one point, describing how much attention the Kernersville meeting has gotten, he said with humor that he has gotten calls from people from as far as Egypt asking about the town.

“It’s not easy to hear — ‘wipe them out,’” he said, alluding to some of the comments made in the Kernersville meeting.

“We need to come together as one community,” said Radwan, who has been in the United States for 30 years, now working as a physical therapy professor at Winston-Salem State University.

The Kernersville discussion — captured in an audio recording — was referred to the FBI by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Returning to a theme echoing the Golden Rule, Radwan stressed that, every day, about 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide eat, dance and love — they live their lives just like people of any other faith. But, he said, people tend to get their information from snippets of news. Not many may know that Radwan and members of the Islamic center have, for example, fed the hungry or built homes with Habitat for Humanity.

After the service, during the town hall meeting, Radwan at times used humor, other times a measured tone to answer questions from many non-Muslims.

Among them was Marie Davis, who said she is Catholic.

Before the forum, she told a Winston-Salem Journal reporter that she was there to ask some questions, prefacing them with the idea that there are “bad apples in every bunch,” referencing bad deeds committed by the Catholic church.

Many of her questions were about the treatment of women. Examples: Are women forced to marry, and are men allowed to have more than one wife?

Radwan said he does not know anyone with more than one wife.

Dina Shehata, an active member of the Annoor Islamic Center, presented herself as an example of what life can be for Muslim women. Shehata got an undergraduate degree at UNC Chapel Hill and a graduate degree at N.C. State University, focusing on international studies. Recently, she was approved to work at the U.S. State Department, pending a security clearance.

Nobody forces her to wear the hijab, or head covering.

“My father does not force me to wear it. My brother does not force me to wear it. My mother does not, either,” Shehata said. “It’s truly a spiritual connection for women. They have a choice … to wear it or not to wear it. Yes, it is a requirement. But ultimately it’s up to the woman, herself.”

Many Annoor members said they follow the law of the land.

“I chose my own man,” Shehata said with humor, triggering a wave of laughter. “Nobody forced me to choose him.”

Some people at the town hall, including Barry Geller, a Jew, simply expressed support. Referring to the Torah, he said, first in Hebrew, then in English: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

“Jesus said that. It’s also in (the) Quran. The exact same words. The exact same sentence,” Geller said.

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