SHAFAQNA – A boy begins.
Arabic verse fills the block building, an uncommon sound for many of the roughly 200 people there. Not until the next boy translates will many recognize the familiar story of Mary and Jesus.
It was the first hint Saturday night of how much the hosts and guests may have in common, but it won’t be the last.
“I’m tired of radicals having control of the conversation, from both sides,” said Muhammed Raba, an Indian Land resident at the Islamic Community Center South Charlotte. “The problem is we are not talking. We are not moving the conversation.”
The center, just inside the Lancaster County Panhandle near Pineville, N.C., hosted a “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” open house Saturday. The idea was to give basics on Islamic beliefs and spark conversations with people who may know Muslims only through news accounts or fiction.
“Muslims haven’t done a great job at educating those outside of their communities about themselves,” said Imam Eesaa Wood, who trains people in those types of conversations with Mercy for Mankind.
“Many Americans have not reached out to a Muslim to find out who they are.”
Wood knows both worlds. He grew up protestant in North Carolina. In 2009, at 25, he chose Islam as a continuation of the faith he already had. He learned how Islam reveres Jesus Christ and Jewish neighbors. He learned how Islam teaches acceptance of outside beliefs. He learned that, with 1.8 billion followers worldwide, it’s bigger than any one culture or race.
“Islam is a way of being,” Wood said. “It has beliefs, it has actions. It has an outer and an inner core.”
Wood has white skin, and English is his first language. His being Muslim rarely results in problems within the region, he said, as it could for followers from other parts of the world. Or for women, who have a “generally awful experience” as their dress points them out as a minority group, he said.
“As long as I blend in culturally, linguistically, there’s nothing different,” Wood said. “The moment I tell them I’m Muslim, everything changes. It’s storm clouds.”
Certain situations he can predict.
“Especially if I’m going through an airport,” Wood said. “Now I get a free massage every time I go.”
Raba describes a quick 180-degree turn in conversations when he tells people he is Muslim. Yet, area Muslims say, they welcome the conversations.
“Ask questions,” said Salim Abdusalam, a 73-year-old Charlotte man who chose Islam more than 30 years ago.
“Ask questions. People just don’t want to ask questions. I’m a Muslim, I served my country, I’m a Vietnam (War) vet. People don’t know because they don’t ask.”
Like Wood, Abdusalem didn’t grow up with Islam. He found it during the Malcolm X generation, at the height of the civil rights movement, and it changed him. Abdusalem credits his faith with delivering him from drugs and other vices.
“I found that freedom I was looking for in the ’60s by making myself a slave to Allah,” he said.
Guests on Saturday arrived with varying notions of who Muslims are. Many said they are tired of seeing negative, violent depictions of Muslims as representative of the entire faith.
“We just came as outsiders and wanted to see what’s going on,” said Sam Slack, a retired Methodist clergyman from Rock Hill who attended with his wife, Natalie.
“We’re looking for a better sense of who our neighbors are. There’s an awful lot of misunderstanding and confusion.”
The Slacks spent time a couple years back teaching English in a Palestinian village, so they had some understanding of Islam. Slack worries that angry rhetoric toward Muslims could grow into an even greater problem if Christians and others don’t stand in and help stop it.
“There’s enough fear in this country,” Slack said. “As a Christian, I want to stand with them, not against them.”
Fort Mill resident Scott gru-Bell said he believes events like the one Saturday can help “break down a lot of barriers.” With television, movies and nightly newscasts, gru-Bell said, anti-Islamic images are too easy to find and Islamic extremists “need to be shown as an exception” to the faith as a whole.
“The media has been devastating to Muslims,” he said. “And that’s not what I see here.”
Sabreen Asif came to Charlotte five years ago. She doesn’t wear a hijab – a traditional head scarf many Muslim women wear – at work as a bank teller, because it wasn’t the custom in the part of India where she was born. Asif doesn’t see overt discrimination in her daily life, but she understands subtler challenges faced by Muslims.
“These (open house) events need to happen,” she said. “It needs to be, ‘This is who we are.’ It need not be propaganda.”
With two teenagers and one younger child, Asif wants a better overall understanding of how Muslims fit into American society as she helps family members through their formative years. People like Wood, who chose Islam and found it a path toward peace, should be held as examples, she said.
“That would be a game changer for some people,” Asif said.
Muslims and guests Saturday agreed on one point. Both have a role to play. Area Muslims need to open their doors and arms to the community at large, they said, and non-Muslims need to see Islam as larger than a contingent of violent radicals.
“American people have to start thinking and using logical, reasonable brain power when thinking about a group of people,” Wood said.