Bridging the gap between Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors

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by Heba Abdel-Karim • Imagine this scenario: You live in the same area with your Minnesotan Muslim neighbor. This person, his actions, beliefs, and practices seem a bit peculiar to you, as you have not encountered many Muslims. All you know about Muslims is what you hear others say, from the media and the like, but they are otherwise unfamiliar.

Minnesota Muslims are finding themselves voiceless, discussed, defined, categorized, psychoanalyzed, talked at and talked about without a serious attempt at inclusion. Muslims, and friends of Muslims, would like to change this climate. Engage Minnesota is a blog that begins that effort.

You wish to get in contact with him or her—even with a simple “hi”—but you may subconsciously have second thoughts because of how Muslims are negatively labeled by others. This, along with some other reasons, makes it seem like the gap between you and your Muslim neighbor is too large to even give it a try.

This takes place a lot nowadays, and even more so ever since 9/11, as Muslims have been negatively portrayed by the media. But something as large as improving relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims, and increasing awareness of Islam, begins by something as small as improving Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors’ relationships with one another.

What many people do not know is that the rules regarding relationships with one’s neighbors is clearly stated in Islam, and is an integral part of a Muslim’s belief.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) spoke about how a Muslim should treat his neighbors in general, be they Muslim or non-Muslim. He stated: “Angel Gabriel kept exhorting me about [obligations towards] the neighbor, so much that I imagined that he might be included as one of the heirs” (compied by Bukhari and Muslim, two very knowledgeable scholars of Islam who worked for many years to gather and record the chain of narratations of the sayings, or hadiths, of the Prophet). It is thus that a Muslim is obligated to treat his neighbor—so that one might think that he is part of the family.

In another instance, the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) spoke to women and said: “O Muslim women! Do not consider your neighbors despicable even though she may send you a piece of a goat’s shank as a present” (Bukhari and Muslim). In this case, the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) is implying that no matter how rude one’s neighbor is, one should always react in a manner that avoids clashes.

In some areas, such as Southern California, Muslims have taken steps to increase awareness of Islam and Muslims in their neighborhoods. An advertising campaign in Los Angeles and Orange County used billboards to help promote good relations with Muslims and their neighbors. The slogans posted on the billboards included major themes of Islam, such as “‘Even a smile is Charity’ —a message from your Muslim neighbor,” “Kindness is a mark of faith,” and “A nice thought is an act of worship.” See more here.

Although Minnesota is considered the “Friendliest State” by the Guinness Book of World Records, there have been, however, some instances of a lack of understanding between non-Muslims and their Muslim neighbors. One such instance includes the vandalizing of Al-Amal School, a private Islamic school in Fridley: Toilet paper was thrown around the bushes and trees a couple weeks after the horrible incidents of 9/11. More recently, Al-Amal School received offensive faxes that made such statements as saying that the Qur’an was a “terrorist manual.” In many of such instances, Muslims feel unwelcomed by their fellow Minnesotan neighbors. According to a report done by the Council of American Islamic Relations, this lack of understanding is due, in part, to non-Muslims’ lack of knowledge about Islam and Muslims. But most of these have been dealt with in the correct manner by the Muslim neighbors, many without the use of law enforcement; simply by using the best approach of all: interacting one-on-one with one’s neighbors. And this was the approach that produced the best results: By doing this, the neighbor is better educated about Islam and Muslims and is therefore given an impression about the religion much better than what he had to start with.

In addition to the person-to-person strategy, many organizations in Minnesota, such as the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, have taken steps to initiate interaction between people of various religions, one neighborhood at a time. JRLC holds meetings that enable Muslims and non-Muslims to discuss matters that pertain to both of their needs, showing them that they have many similarities rather than focusing only on the differences. One annual meeting in particular, which usually takes place in March and is called “The Day on the Hill,” allows people of different religious backgrounds to gather together at the RiverCentre and the State Capitol and discuss political issues of concern to Minnesotans with their legislators such as housing, health care, and human rights.

Recently, the Islamic Center of Minnesota became an official member of JRLC, bringing the Muslim community’s voice to Minnesota’s oldest and largest religiously sponsored political-affairs group. Muslims will now join with Jews, Protestants, and Catholics in Minnesota to cooperatively research public-policy questions and jointly make recommendations to the state Legislature. For more information about JRLC and its upcoming events, visit www.jrlc.org.

Reconsider the original scenario: You attend a JRLC meeting at the State Capitol. Looking around, you see people of different religious backgrounds discussing issues of concern to everyone sitting in the room. It gives you a sense of commonality between you and your Muslim neighbor, and makes you feel more comfortable approaching him or her to simply say “hi” or to ask a question about Islam. There finally seems to be a bridge that connects you to your Minnesotan Muslim neighbor, and leaves both of you happier in the sense that you can now work together to reach a common goal.

Heba Abdel-Karim currently resides in Fridley, Minn. and is a student at the University of Minnesota.

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