Daily Herald: Program offers insight on Islam

As he walked through the doors at the Islamic Center of Des Plaines, Vern Geurkink couldn’t help but marvel at the austerity of the modern-looking mosque.

A retired Christian minister now living in Naperville, Geurkink has been inside dozens of churches and even some synagogues over the years, but this was like no worship space he had ever seen.

“I thought to myself, where are all the books? Where are all the paintings and icons?” he said. “It was different, but a wonderfully eye-opening experience for me.”

Geurkink was one of about 60 seniors — many of them from the suburbs — who visited the mosque Wednesday during the latest in a series of daylong educational programs sponsored by the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

In addition to the tour, they also observed the mosque’s afternoon prayer ritual, dined on an Egyptian lunch and listened to a brief lecture about the Koran and the five pillars of the faith.

Later, they partook in an hourlong question-and-answer session aimed at debunking myths about the faith, which counts more than 1.4 billion followers worldwide.

One woman, Lorene Watson of Des Plaines, wanted to know more about the hijab, the style of dress preferred by some Muslim women that requires the covering of the head, arms and legs.

“A lot of people ask me if I’m forced to wear this by my father, but that’s not the case,” said Sumiah Aduib, a young Muslim woman who answered Watson’s question. “It was my own decision. I took it on, and I felt like it completed me as a person.”

While many said they were inspired to attend because of a simple devotion to lifelong learning, others pointed to the war in Iraq and ongoing Christian-Muslim conflicts around the world as the reason for their interest in Islam.

One woman said she feels Islam is unfairly portrayed in the American media, which she said focuses on a minority of extremists while ignoring millions of Muslims whose core beliefs mirror Christianity’s Golden Rule.

Ahmed Rehab, who coordinates the program, said Muslims themselves are partly to blame for that phenomenon.

“The American media isn’t inherently anti-Muslim, it just hasn’t dealt with us for long enough.” he said. “Since 9/11, we’ve sort of been shocked into opening up more and I think there’s been a greater understanding.”

Although more than 1,200 people have participated in the outreach program during the past two years, Rehab said he hopes to expand it even more, perhaps by welcoming school field trips.

“There is a huge disconnect between what these people have seen today and to what most people see on TV or in the newspapers,” Rehab said. “We American Muslims need to be more outspoken so more people will understand who we really are.”

efanselow@dailyherald.com

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