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Community members curious to learn about Islamic faith

By Mary Stamp

Muslim leaders in Spokane welcome crowd of people interested in learning about Islam.

More than 350 people, the largest group to attend one of the Spokane Interfaith Council’s “Meet the Neighbors” events, gathered Jan. 19 at the Spokane Islamic Center to learn about the Muslim faith, community and concerns.

It was the third session as part of a “six-month journey through Spokane’s religious communities.” 

The first one was visiting the Jewish synagogue Dec. 3 at Temple Beth Shalom and the second was Dec. 16 at the Sikh Temple (Gurudwara) of Spokane in Spokane Valley.

The next one will be from 2 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 27, at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Cultures, 2316 W. First Ave., to learn about Native American faith, spirituality, practices and culture.

Skyler Oberst, president of the Spokane Interfaith Council, said the goal is to bring people together to learn about their neighbors and their neighbors’ faiths.

The council worked several months with the Islamic Center’s board.

Opening the event, Skyler introduced Sara Brody, a Presbyterian, who presented the Spokane Islamic Center with a copy of a letter circulated online by Groundswell, a nonprofit that empowers people to reduce energy use.  The letter, signed by 25,000 faith leaders, expresses concern that hate speech today incites fear of and violence against Muslims. 

The letter said, “America is not America without Muslims.  As people of faith and moral conscience, we promise to defend our Muslim brothers and sisters from attack, to speak up when they are maligned, and to support them with our voices, our actions and our bodies.”

“When they come for any member of our community, they come for all of us,” they said, appalled that thousands cheer bigotry in the “rantings of a politician.”

Recognizing that Muslim people are afraid and concerned about their safety, the faith leaders said, “we must not allow fear to undermine the values that stand at the core of who we are as faith leaders and Americans.”

“You are our neighbors”—doctors, merchants, school board presidents, restaurant owners, soccer coaches, policewomen, public officials, mothers, fathers, caregivers, and “allies and colleagues in movements for justice,” they wrote. “You are us.”

Signers hope for a future where racism, hate and violence are relics of the past, and where differences are celebrated.

Skyler then said he had done research and found that Muslims have been in the region for generations, many drawn to study at area universities.  In the 1950s, Muslim students and faculty at Gonzaga University and Eastern Washington University (EWU) met.  They formed the Spokane Islamic Center, which now serves more than 1,100 of the Muslims in the area.

Skyler introduced Mamdouh El Aarag, a member of the Spokane Islamic Center board.

Mamdouh looked out on the crowded room and said, “It moves my heart to see you here.  This is the America I love. This is the America that stands against hate, that lives in love and mercy.”

He read a verse from the Quran that says God created all humankind from one person.

“God is all knowing,” he said, pointing out that God created people with many different languages, nations, tribes, cultures and colors. 

He explained that Muslims who decided to stay in Spokane after college first bought a house in North Spokane in 1979 as a prayer hall.  It became crowded, as did the meeting spaces at Gonzaga and EWU.

“We decided to build a central facility for all Muslims.  With contributions of Muslims, we built the Spokane Islamic Center in 2008 at 6411 E. Second Ave. as a place for us to practice and grow in understanding our Muslim faith,” Mamdouh said.

Muslims gather there for religious, social and educational activities—daily prayers, Friday midday prayers, a Wednesday study, Sunday school and youth activities.  It is also used for holy days, weddings and funerals.

Mamdouh said there are four types of people among the 5,000 Muslims in the region: immigrants and refugees born outside the United States, their children, converts and international students.

Members of the Islamic Center board speak to the crowd.

“I enjoy the diversity of the people, languages and cultures,” he said. “We are stronger together.”

Muslims here come from Afghanistan, Argentina, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Croatia, England, Egypt, Gambia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Kashmir, Kenya, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, Palestine, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Senegal, Singapore, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United States and Yemen, according to the website.

“We love the United States,” said Mamdouh, who came from Palestine to the U.S. in 1982 and to Spokane in 1986 as a civil engineering student at Gonzaga University.  After graduating, he worked as an environmental engineer.

While many students return to their homelands, others stay.  Some don’t have a country to go back to.

While Mamdouh said he has not experienced bigotry, his wife, who wears a scarf, has, and his children have been picked on because they look different and have different names.  They use incidents as opportunities to educate. 

Mamdouh then answered questions.

Why do Muslims use Arabic?

It is the language in which God revealed the Quran over 23 years to the Prophet Mohammed. Muslims need to know enough Arabic to be able to pray a few easy words. 

What type of Muslims are here?

Most Muslims here are Sunni, which means “the way of the Prophet.”  Sunni are open to all.  Shia, a minority of Muslims, have different sects, he said.

What is most important to you about your faith?

“The most beautiful thing about Islam is its simplicity.  It’s a way of life. We connect with the Creator as we prostrate ourselves in prayer,” he said.

How do you handle talk about banning Muslims from entering the United States as refugees?

“This is how,” he said, gesturing to the gathering.

Then Kawkab Shishani, a member of the Islamic Center and Washington State University nursing professor, added, “I have a passion to bring people together.  We need to ask each other what we believe to gain knowledge and be empowered.  I believe we are to love everything around us, people, plants and animals.”

What is the role of Muslim women?

Kawkab said:  “I’ve been practicing since I was a child in Jordan in the 1970s. My family encouraged me to be educated and be myself. Women can be whoever and whatever we want to be.  As a woman of faith, I go to the source and learn my responsibilities and rights.  If women do not know our rights, we will not fight for them.”

How does Islam relate to Judaism and Christianity?

Mamdouh said: “Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael.  From Isaac, came Judaism and Christianity.  From Ishmael, came Islam.  We are cousins in faith.  We share many beliefs.”

How do Muslims approach infidels?  Not all the verses in the Quran are about love and mercy.  How do you have one book with different meanings?

Mamdouh said that some people who claim to be Muslim, Christian or Jewish may be bad, but the message of these three faiths is love, peace and forgiveness. It’s important to understand a verse based on the context of when, why and where it was revealed and for what purpose.

Kawkab added,  “Muslims also fear terrorists.  Hundreds of mosques have been destroyed.  A few people hijack the faith to implement what they want.  Their actions mean the world misunderstands us.  It’s frustrating.”

What are some practical ways we can walk together?

Skyler said that it’s important to remember “we are community beyond our spiritual, faith or political communities.”

Saying that his Christian faith calls him to love unconditionally, he called for people to share each other’s sorrows, trials and joys, and to come to events like Meet the Neighbors, so “we will not be strangers.”

Skyler encouraged people to make new friends, meet for coffee and recognize common bonds in their choice to live in Spokane.

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