Community discussion on Islam debunks stereotypes

March 7, 2016

Residents broke into small groups to discuss topics on Islam. Photo courtesy Caroline Selle.

BY CAROLINE SELLE — On Sunday, Feb. 28, more than 60 people gathered at the Hyattsville Municipal Building to hear three female Muslim panelists answer questions about the Islam religion and to further explain their faith. Panelists included Raheemah Abdulaleem, a Hyattsville resident employed as Associate General Counsel in the Executive Office of the President; Jamiah Aniece Adams, a media producer; and Luby Ismail, who received the 2012 Arab American Anti-Discrimination Honoring the Achievements of Extraordinary Arab-American Women Award. The event was moderated by Hyattsville resident and Hyattsville Life and Times contributor Julia Gaspar-Bates.

“The political rhetoric, lately, lashing out against Muslims has really shaken a lot of people,” Gaspar-Bates said. “Given that Luby and I are both interculturalists, we try to build bridges and break down barriers. I thought, what can we do on the grassroots level to support this?”

The program was a collaboration between the City of Hyattsville and 20,000 Dialogues, a non-profit for which Ismail is an advisor, and it began with a few words by each panelist. In their introductions, Adams and Abdulaleem both traced their parents’ journeys to Islam through the Nation of Islam movement. Today, both are practicing Sunni Muslims. Sunni is the denomination of Islam practiced by the majority of Muslims globally, while Shia is the other major denomination.

To start the discussion, Ismail asked the audience a series of true/false questions about her faith. Some attendees expressed surprise to learn that in the Islamic tradition of prophets, the Biblical Adam is considered the first. Others appeared previously unaware that “Allah” is the Arabic word for God, just as “Dios” is in Spanish.

Ismail described her childhood growing up in the “small-town” South, where her closest friends were devout Christians. They had much in common in their faiths, she said, noting that Jesus Christ is mentioned more times in the Qu’ran than the Prophet Muhammed.

After the introductions, Q & A, and break-out discussion, attendees were shown the film “American Muslims.” Produced by the Unity Productions Foundation (of which Ismail’s husband, Alex Kronemer, is a co-founder), the film intersperses interviews with American Muslims with statistics about Islam in America.

Throughout the discussion, Ismail emphasized the difference between religion and culture. The majority of Muslims are Asian, she said, not Arab, and the largest Muslim majority country in the world is Indonesia.

“I think that the fact that we’re here and we’re getting exposed to one another in a way that’s not available any other way … It’s not necessarily easy to have these conversations, but we were here and we did it,” said attendee and Hyattsville resident Bill O’Grady. “I think it really says something pretty phenomenal about the city that they would take a position to allow people to broaden themselves and to broaden the understanding of people who live in the city.”

“I approached [the City of Hyattsville] to see if it would be something [the city was] willing to host … and he was incredibly enthusiastic,” Gaspar-Bates said. “There was really a lot of synergy around this right from the start.”

In fact, the city and organizers are considering turning the event into a series.

“We realized there were a lot of questions we weren’t able to answer in the time frame that we had,” Gaspar-Bates said.

Talib Karim contributed to this reporting. Karim is an HL&T contributor and the husband of one of the panelists.