Chicago Tribune: Seniors Get Look Into Way of Islam

Elderhostel works with Muslims on education project

Under the silver dome of the Islamic Cultural Center in Northbrook, the young boy lifted his hands to his ears and raised his voice sounding the afternoon call to prayer. Slowly, a group of about 80 older adults filed to the back of the mosque and watched as the Muslims bowed their heads to the floor in devotion to God.

Bill Southwick, 66, said it was his first time in a mosque. But, even at first glance, the Presbyterian minister said he could feel the solemnity of the faith.

“I found the ritual very engrossing,” said Southwick, of Oak Park. “I know very little about Islam. But to see it and then listen to an explanation made things more clear.”

Southwick was one of nearly 600 seniors from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin who recently participated in a daylong educational program called Building Bridges to Islam at the Islamic Cultural Center.

Sponsored jointly by the travel group Elderhostel and the Chicago chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, the program was slated to run on four consecutive Wednesdays for groups of about 75 to 80 people each. But demand proved so popular–with more than 300 people on a waiting list–that the program was expanded to two more dates.

The immense interest in Islam by America’s eldest generation is being mirrored in other cities, such as Pittsburgh, Seattle and West Palm Beach, Fla., where Elderhostel and Muslim groups are holding similar seminars and close to 5,000 people have enrolled.

Most of the participants point to the war in Iraq as the main reason for seeking knowledge of Islam. Others say they simply feel a need to better understand the Muslim community as it inevitably becomes part of contemporary American life.

“It just seems like the community is growing so much,” said Phyllis Totcke, 72, who attended the program last month. “I go to the mall and I know the cashier is Muslim because she is wearing a headscarf. But my ignorance is standing in the way of my understanding.”

Ahmed Rehab, who helped coordinate the program at the Northbrook mosque, said the media are partially to blame for misconceptions because of a focus on extremists. But he also places some fault on the limited accessibility of outspoken moderate Muslims.

“This is what we as Muslims have to do in the post-9/11 world. We have to assume the responsibility of reaching out and explaining who we are,” Rehab said. “We have to do our part to engage in these discussions.”

To have such frank dialogues about faith, there is probably no better setting than the Islamic Cultural Center, founded by Bosnian Muslims and is known for its commitment to interfaith activities. In 1995, the spiritual leader of the mosque, Imam Senad Agic, allowed a new Jewish congregation to hold religious services in the building.

Cardinal Francis George visited the Northbrook mosque in 1998 for iftar, the daily break of the Ramadan fast. The presence of the archbishop was described at the time as the start of a new chapter in relations between Catholics and Muslims. The mosque now holds an annual interfaith iftar with Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders.

James Moses, president of Elderhostel, said the idea for the community-based program stemmed from the spate of hate crimes against Muslims that occurred after the Sept. 11 attacks. After discussions with Muslim leaders, the first series of programs began last year in Boston, Long Island, Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tampa, West Palm Beach and Miami.

After Elderhostel finalized plans for the Chicago program earlier this year, dozens of older adults from across the area applied.

“I think there is still a lot of confusion out there about Muslim fundamentalism and whether that really represents the faith,” Moses said.

The $39 package includes a tour of the mosque, three lectures, a Middle Eastern lunch, afternoon prayers and a town hall discussion.

Inside the modest brick mosque on Pfingsten Road, the program began with a lecture by Rehab on the fundamentals of Islam and an explanation of the five pillars of the faith. Rehab also covered basic elements of the Koran and explained the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

After the first lecture, Millie Johnson, 69, of Barrington said she was surprised to find out that the Koran is considered to be a continuation of Judaism and Christianity.

“That was fascinating to me,” she said. “We don’t hear very often that Islam respects other religions. Here they talked about an actual connection. You never hear that.”

Mary Trigsted, a retired school administrator from Chicago, said she gained a better understanding of how some fundamentalist Muslims are distorting the message of the Koran’s sacred texts.

“I think it’s such an important issue right now,” she said. “We are learning that Islam is about love and compassion. So, we’re trying to get some insight into that part of the religion and what they are doing in Iraq.”

Marilyn Fiduccia said she had worked for nearly 23 years as a university administrator with a colleague who was a devout Muslim from Iran. Yet the two never spoke about religion. After the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 unfolded, Fiduccia grew more curious about her friend’s faith. Still, she held back.

“There was some tension back then and we just never spoke about religious issues,” said Fiduccia, 66, who lives in Libertyville and retired in 1999. “Now, with the conflict in Iraq, I finally came to the realization that I don’t have a solid understanding of Islam. Rather than just reading about it in a book or newspaper, somehow I needed a better source.”

For Cathy Sell, 72, of Park Ridge some confusion remained.

“I’m a Christian and I know Christ said he was divine. But, Muslims believe Christ was just a prophet,” she said. “So, if he is a liar, how can he be a prophet? That didn’t make sense to me.”

During the afternoon portion of the program, the discussion became more heated when someone asked about the fundamentalist interpretation of jihad, or holy war. The woman asked the Muslim panelists if fundamentalists who justify violence can be compared to Christian members of the Ku Klux Klan who justified slavery.

At that, one woman yelled in disgust: “Come on! Slavery isn’t going on anymore. But they’re killing people in Iraq today!”

Later, Rehab said the outburst was unusual. But it didn’t bother him.

“I think it just shows that there are different opinions in every group,” he said. “We see similar things happen when we get a group of Muslims together too.”

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