Muslim Awareness Month celebrates interfaith dialogue, acceptance
February is well known for celebrating black history, but for the first time this year, it has also been designated as Muslim Awareness Month to recognize the nation’s growing diversity.
Muslim Student Association President Matthew Stevens said community involvement is typical for the 100-member club, but this month, its actions have been more visible.
“We’re trying to reach out to the community to get people to know that we care about things more than just Muslim issues,” Stevens said. “We want to answer questions, and we want to build relationships.”
Muslims do sometimes face tension in Chapel Hill. The 2006 day when UNC graduate Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar ran his car through the Pit to “avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world” was hard, Stevens said.
“It’s people like that, when they say they do something for an entire religion, for an entire culture, it damages everybody,” he said. “That’s obviously not what we stand for.”
Stevens said with the number of Muslims on campus growing, he hopes community and interfaith activities help people understand his faith.
But police reports show that Muslims are sometimes harassed — four “anti-Muslim” or “anti-Arab” incidents have been reported in the last 10 years, Chapel Hill Police Sgt. Josh Mecimore said.
They all involved verbal and not physical violence. One victim was called a terrorist, Mecimore said. Another was harassed because of the war on terror.
To help encourage tolerance, Christian and Jewish groups on and off campus are working together on issues that they say are smaller than most people think.
Josh Orol, co-president of Hillel, said he feels compelled to respond when campus Muslims are defamed.
“We would support anybody who is being slandered,” Orol said. “There’s no place for that in our community.”
Orol said Hillel wrote letters to the editor about the David Horowitz newspaper ads, which made negative statements about Muslims in regard to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
A Sept. 13, 2011, ad that ran in The Daily Tar Heel stated, “Never before in all of human history has a people waged a calculated war on women and children, and honored the murderers.”
Orol said Hillel was offended and wanted to make sure that the group was a voice against the ad.
And Jamil Kadoura, Muslim and owner of Mediterranean Deli, said Jewish-Muslim support extends to the town.
Kadoura said he was recently invited to speak at a synagogue about Middle East peace.
“It was beautiful,” Kadoura said. “When I left that place, I felt really good. I felt that I learned things.”
But Kadoura said he, like Muslims nationwide, will never forget 9/11.
In part, he said, this is because the community’s reaction toward him was the opposite of what Muslims in many parts of the country had experienced.
“I was overwhelmed with the support of people here, especially Jews,” Kadoura said. “That was the busiest month of the Deli to that date.”
He said community members and campus students made special trips to his restaurant to show their support. When he told his sister about his sales figures, he said she couldn’t believe him.
“This is a very liberal, open-minded, educated community,” Kadoura said. “I love that about this place.”
Quaker Nancy Milio said acceptance often comes from education. In that vein, she and Curt Torell decided to start — and are co-chairs of — the “bridging the faith divide” committee at Chapel Hill Friends Meeting, a Quaker congregation. They said it focuses on education and promoting interfaith activities.
Kadoura said understanding different faiths isn’t hard.
“We all believe the same thing,” he said. “Be good, love each other, be in peace and harmony.”
On Christmas Eve of 2010, the Quakers opened up their worship center for Muslim prayer and later had Muslims talk about their faith to the congregation.
This weekend, Triangle-area mosques will return the favor for its annual “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” day.
Shane Atkinson, a Muslim who is helping with the event at the Cary mosque, said that the event attracted hundreds of people at the Islamic Association of Raleigh two years ago.
“You don’t have to believe like I believe, that’s cool,” Atkinson said. “We just want to let people see that we’re not the Bogeyman.”
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