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Special Report

Building relationships with Muslims


In perhaps the largest gathering of Muslims with non-Muslims in the United States since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in New York, some 3,800 people recently packed a massive hall at Chicago’s Navy Pier. Despite the vast size of the assembly, they actually talked with one another.

One-on-one contact was a major purpose of the event co-sponsored by United Power for Action and Justice and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. The 90-minute meeting on Nov. 18 also included prayers, brief speeches and three lightly rehearsed public conversations between pairs of Muslims and non-Muslims.

Since United Power’s 1997 founding, thanks in large part to a $1 million grant from the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the organization has become a huge multi-ethnic, multiracial, multi-faith tent enclosing 330 religious institutions, labor unions, health care groups and community organizations in greater Chicago. Its growth stems from unrelenting efforts to build scores of neighbor relationships first and tackle specific social problems second.

“We felt there hasn’t been enough grassroots coming together between Muslims and others since Sept. 11,” said Gregory Pierce, a United Power leader and co-chair of the event. “People need face-to-face contact.”

During the assembly, everyone was asked to separate from friends or family, “find someone who looks different from you” and talk with them and learn from them for 20 minutes. As the crowd, almost evenly divided between Muslims and others, followed instructions, the deafening roar of a thousand conversations filled the hall.

I sat with Zulfiqar Ahmed, 52, an engineer and pious Muslim, who came to this country in 1973. We discussed at first the holy month of Ramadan and the fact that the required fast during daylight hours is much easier when the month occurs, as it does this year, in November than when it falls during the long days of summer. “In July you must go without food, water or medicine up to 17 hours,” said Ahmed.

He was then eager to point out that the Quran absolutely forbids the killing of the innocent, and therefore no justification exists for terrorism. When a reporter asked if some Muslims might view innocent deaths as an unfortunate byproduct of what they consider a justified attack on a symbol of U.S. exploitation, Ahmed said no, no, producing a booklet of quotations from the Quran. “Look here,” he said, “Allah says no killing of the innocent ever. That is absolute. Islam is a tolerant religion.”

Ahmed said he personally witnessed the much-publicized incident involving a mob of some 500 that massed threateningly outside a large mosque in the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview the day after the attack.

The group was quickly dispersed by police, and the next day some 80 students from Maria High School, a Chicago Catholic girls school, stood guard at the mosque. When their action was later cited from the podium, the audience responded with a standing ovation.

During one of the one-on-one dialogues at the microphone, a Maria student who had been at the mosque asked her partner, a Muslim college student, why she wore a head scarf in public. “It emphasizes inner beauty,” she replied, “especially in a society where women are objectified.” The Muslim student then asked for an opinion about Britney Spears’ performance on MTV. “I think it’s sick,” said the Maria student amid more applause. “Role models like that shouldn’t be role models.”

Several Islamic leaders who addressed the crowd were explicit in their view that Muslims in Chicago have been too reluctant to enter the public sphere. The time has come, they said, to get involved in everything from soup kitchens to municipal government. The Muslim population, estimated at more than 400,000, now exceeds the number of Jews in the Chicago area. “Never again should there be so little relationship between us and our government that the government has to call for volunteers to translate our language in a time of crisis,” said Nasser Nubani of the Muslim American Bar Association.

“Never again should there be so little relationship between us and the media that the word Islam immediately evokes terrorism. Never again should there be so little relationship between us and our neighbors that they had to ask us, ‘How do you feel?’ after 9/11.”

As the crowd dispersed, there was much handshaking and exchanging of phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Many said they were resolved to do what they can to make Nubani’s “never again” call a reality.

Robert McClory is a special report writer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001