March 14, 2006 > MY OPINION
Islam, Freedom, Justice (and a slice of Baklava)
by Taha Jabbar
It's not only in the large noisy metropolitan areas rife with an urban populous that the defining events of our era such as religion and society are being mulled over. But yes indeed, here in our own Tri-City environs informed open discussions about what religion, freedom and justice mean to Muslims are being served up alongside home-made Bakhlava and steaming hot coffee and you are invited to join in!
Did you know that practically all Islamic religious sects are well represented in the East Bay and particularly in the Tri-City area? Are you also aware that there are well over 30 mosques, places of worship and Islamic learning centers, libraries, schools etc., within the confines of Fremont, Newark and Union City alone catering to many thousands of Muslims who hail from such geographically disperse locales of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bosnia, Indonesia, UK, France, Australia, Malaysia and indeed practically every Muslim and non-Muslim country in the world.
But most of all did you know that the vast majority of them want to hear from you? Local residents who care about religious freedoms in this the greatest religious and political democracy in the world.
Talking to worshippers leaving Friday prayers last week at the Islamic Society of the East Bay (ISEB) the comments reflected a summary dismay at the lack of understanding among wider Tri-City residents about Islamic teachings and practices. Asim Khan, a resident of North Fremont expressed it this way, "When I hear people talk about Islam its as if they think we breathe fire, torture our women and live by hate; where do they get these views from?" His last point was well echoed by Maha Rani a recent arrival to Union City from Pakistan, "I come to the Islamic Center in Irvington to listen to talks and lectures on Islam history, respect of individuals, role of women and every time I come I always leave having learned so much that I never knew - America is a great place to hear so many views but I never see many Americans [non-Muslims] here. Why don't they come?"
A good question indeed - with weekly talks ranging from "Sharia" (Muslim legal practices), Islamic history, role of women, family values, and charity given by local, national as well as international scholars the opportunity to learn directly from, about and with Muslims establishes the East Bay as a prospective model community complementing it's proud heritage as a learning hub.
To be sure after the tragedy and horror of 9/11 there was a high profile campaign by these learning centers to bring people in and introduce them to the faith. Spurred by a desire to know more, some people did visit and by all accounts the experience for all was illuminating. Interestingly enough, one of the least expected but most welcome by-products of this exchange was not so much the knowledge imparted to the visitors but the experience gained by the orators in how to communicate with a non-Muslim audience. Azim Khan, of Union City remembers going to one of these meets, "The delivery was canned and wooden, it did not come across as interactive at all, more like a volley of facts than a real discussion." However, Khan ventured out again and went to a discussion group a few months ago on freedom of the press and Islam and he remarked "I really enjoyed it, the speaker was actually quite young and very smart, he explained the evolution of press freedom in different parts of the world, Islamic and non-Islamic and then went on to have a discussion with the us. It was fun and educational."
When quizzed on how many non-Muslims he thought were in the audience he immediately retorted -"not enough!" Quickly adding he felt that was a shame as he didn't feel personally eloquent enough to give a similar talk to others himself.
The timeline since 9/11 stretching out until today has been marred by gut-wrenching tragedies in Afghanistan, Iraq, as well as shocking underground rail attacks, horrific over ground city carnage plus a host of other shocking incidents. However, closely tracking this upsurge in these scary events has been a concomitant down-surge of people visiting local centers of Islamic excellence to get any kind of first-hand perspective on what the Muslims' themselves here at home actually think.
The implicit suggestion being that the outside community feels there is one view and it is shared in unison across every single Muslim resident of the tri-city. A short visit to one of the local centers mentioned will quickly dispel that view and shed a warm and re-assuring feeling tied directly to the open discussions, outright rejection of any type of hostility and a concerted optimism for targeting excellent community relations.
Today in the Tri-Cities there is an unashamed drive to "profile" Muslims. But contrary to conventional wisdom this particular strain of drive is being captained from within the Muslim community itself. Muslims are discussing, debating, and learning together with the goal of defining and re-defining what it means to be a Muslim positively contributing to the cultural and economic growth of the tri-city and the USA today. Although this is an inclusive debate open to participation across the community it is doomed to limited relevance and success without involvement from the wider community. Hassan Habibi a Hayward resident émigré from Ethiopia adds "I would really love to hear the non-Muslim American view and I would love for them to hear mine. I came from a country where it wasn't easy to say what you think and now I want to hear what everyone thinks."
It's no news that our Bay Area communities enjoy unparalleled pre-eminence in delivering complex technical solutions to many of today's lifestyle demands. What is now equally apparent is that our very own local, unique and rich cultural mix of people can also provide innovative solutions to a world demanding answers of a softer nature but clearly just as relevant to today's lifestyle - all that is needed is more people to come and ask the questions while munching on the Baklava.
Islamic Center of the east Bay (ISEB)
33330 Peace Terrace, Fremont
Islamic Center of Fremont
4039 Irvington Avenue, Fremont
Taha is a junior at The Athenian School in Danville