By David A. Brensilver
Hartford — East Lyme resident Imran Ahmed recently received an e-mail in response to comments he posted on the Internet about terrorism and the war in Iraq. The e-mail, Ahmed said, came from a former U.S. serviceman who opined that Islam was a bankrupt religion and that Muslims subscribe to terror and violence.
The prevalence of such attitudes was among the reasons Ahmed gave for attending the 32nd annual convention organized by the Islamic Circle of North America in conjunction with the Muslim American Society and support from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The three-day convention, which concludes today, was held for the third consecutive year at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.
Organizers supplemented the event with a daylong symposium Saturday called “Window to Islam,” which addressed Islamophobia and its perpetuation at the hands of the media.
Unlike Ahmed, who sits on the board of the Islamic Center of New London
and is operations manager for Council on American-Islamic Relations'
Connecticut chapter, North Stonington resident Saeed Shaikh said he has
not experienced stereotyping firsthand. Shaikh said he attended the
symposium to hear the first two speakers of the day, Yusuf Estes, a
Texas native and former member of a fundamentalist Christian sect who
converted to Islam in 1991 and now lives in Washington, D.C., and Dr.
Jamal Badawi, professor emeritus at St. Mary's University in Halifax,
Both speakers used etymology — the study of the origin and development
of words — in interpreting language in the Koran, Estes in explaining
Islam in the context of other religions, particularly Judeo-Christian
denominations, and Badawi in defining “jihad.”
An audience of more than 100 people, the vast majority of whom were not
Muslims but did, by a show of hands, identify themselves as believing
in God, listened and asked questions most had written on index cards.
“What's the source of evil according to Islam?” one audience member
asked, to which Estes replied, “The evil is, in this life, a test for
all of us.”
Another audience member asked why people kill in the name of Allah.
After indicating that Muslims do kill animals for consumption in the
name of Allah, Estes said the Koran forbids taking the lives of
innocent people, an area that Badawi's presentation addressed
Badawi said there is no correlation between jihad and holy war, and
that “holy war” is an English term that does not appear in the Koran,
even in translation.
“Jihad,” he said, is derived from a term that means “to exert maximum effort” — “to strive for something” in modern terms.
While Badawi said jihad could be combative in nature, he said the Koran
limits that type of effort to defense against “unprovoked aggression”
and overcoming severe oppression.
During Badawi's presentation, an audience member passed forward an
index card to ask what kind of Muslim is a terrorist. Badawi, making
reference to Timothy McVeigh, asked rhetorically why Christians
attacked the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995
in order to make his point that the Muslim community has experienced
some level of guilt by association following the terrorist attacks of
Sept. 11, 2001.
Another audience member asked why a Muslim population that preaches
peace doesn't stop terrorism. Badawi asked how a doctor or an engineer
could do so when governments and their assets cannot, and said, “All
communities, if they're honest, they should engage in interfaith
Shaikh, who said he wanted to hear what Estes and Badawi had to say so
he would be in a better position to educate his non-Muslim friends,
talked about the latter's explanation of jihad.
“There are people whose names are Jihad,” Shaikh said to illustrate
that the word is not synonymous, by definition, with “holy war.”
Though he has not experienced it first hand, Shaikh said there is a lot
of stereotyping of the Muslim community, and that it comes from
people's upbringing, as well as the media.
“Either they are naïve, they don't understand or they are ignorant,” he said.
Agreeing that the media has been culpable in perpetuating negative
stereotypes, Ahmed said, “It's almost like comic relief. If it weren't
sad, it would be funny, I guess.”
Some who attended the symposium were disappointed by some of the questions their fellow audience members asked.
“They might not even have listened to (Badawi),” said New Britain
resident Liz Aaronsohn, who belongs to a multifaith group in Hartford
called We Refuse to be Enemies. “They were questions designed to
Trinity College senior-to-be Andrea Chivakos, who is from Boston, said,
“Some of them seemed fairly hostile, but I'm happy that those people
have come and are trying to get a different perspective.”
“Islam is not monolithic,” Ahmed said.