Medill Chicago News Service: Local Muslim group aims to erase stereotypes by educating seniors

Seeking to dispel common misconceptions about Islam and Muslims, a Chicago-area group has hit a real vein of interest.

The Council On American-Islamic Relations held a day-long lecture Wednesday for 77 senior citizens at a Northbrook mosque. But another 150 are awaiting their chance to learn more about Islam.

The group from Elderhostel, an international travel and education organization, had varying degrees of understanding about Islam. But all were eager to learn about the religion they found to be stereotyped in America.

“People are influenced by the radical terrorists, who are really a small percentage and don’t adhere to the tenets of Islam,” said Carolyn Harvey of Racine, Wis.

Harvey grew up in the South in the Baptist tradition, but was always interested in other religions. She said her small town gave her little opportunity to study other faiths. While her father encouraged her religious pursuits, her church held a more narrow view.

“In Sunday school the teacher told me the only way to heaven was to be a Baptist,” Harvey said.

Council spokesman Ahmed Rehab opened the program at the Islamic Cultural Center with a lecture on the 5 Pillars of Islam mandated of all adult Muslims: witnessing, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage.

Muhammad Eissa, a former professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Michigan, spoke on the history of the Prophet Muhammed and the development of Islam.

The group broke for a customary Middle East lunch including pita, falafel, grape leaves and kabobs.

After lunch, attendees convened for the noontime prayer service of the mosque. Rehab instructed them to remove their shoes, and suggested women wrap their heads in scarves. A handful did.

Then students from the center filed into the room, forming two lines separated by gender, boys in the front. A young boy filled the position of muezzin, the person who sings the call to prayer, or the Adhan.

As the Muslims continued with their prayers facing the direction of Mecca, the Elderhostel group watched curiously, sitting and standing against the walls of the prayer room.

The service provided ample material for questions during the following panel of the two lecturers and Janaan Hashim, host of a talk show for RadioIslam, a Chicago station at 1450 AM.

While the group asked basic ceremonial questions, they also brought complex topics such as the role of women and terrorism to the panel.

One such question was why terrorists have used the Quran, Islam’s holy book, to justify their actions.

Rehab said people have used religion to justify a number of atrocities. He believed the way to defeat the extremists’ arguments is through a mastery of the Quran. He also said the voice of mainstream Muslims is often overshadowed by those on the fringes of Islam.

“People who represent the peaceful majority of Muslims are no less omnipresent than the extremists we see in the media,” said Rehab.

On the topic of terrorism, one person said she heard terrorists expect martyrdom with “virgins waiting for them in heaven.”

“I haven’t received the memo,” Rehab responded. “I don’t know the number of virgins. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”


Copyright © 2006, Medill Chicago News Service — Northwestern University