Lively ‘Meet a Muslim’ Events Seek to Break down Barriers
By Hamed Aleaziz
Photo by Michael Short
A familiar question emerged from the mostly white crowd of about 60 people who had gathered in a Fremont coffee shop to engage in a back-and-forth with a 56-year-old mother of four wearing an orange striped hijab.
“One of the issues that I see from my vantage point — Bay Area Muslims have not taken a stand, for example, against ISIS,” said a man standing in the crowd, referring to the Islamic State group.
A woman seated nearby said, “Yes! Yes!” and clasped her hands together as the man continued: “Why is it Bay Area Muslims have not come out and said we dissociate ourselves from ISIS?”
It was exactly the sort of question Moina Shaiq, the woman in the hijab, was expecting when she began organizing a community event she dubbed Meet a Muslim — a gathering she could use to separate fact from fiction, and fears, about American Muslims like herself.
Shaiq told the man in Mission Coffee that Muslim Americans had stood strongly against terrorism, repeatedly and publicly.
“Every single time — ISIS or not ISIS — that there is any Muslim terrorism attack anywhere in the world, all Muslims organizations from A to Z, immediately send out a press release condemning it,” she said. “The other side of the story is this: Why is it that Muslims are always expected to say sorry for something that some people are doing?”
More than 100 show up
Shaiq’s quest to change the perception of Muslim Americans, one uncomfortable question at a time, comes after mass killings in Paris and San Bernardino prompted a new wave of scrutiny of the community. Donald Trump suggested banning Muslims from entering the country, while fellow presidential candidate Ben Carson claimed Islam is not a religion but a “life organization system.”
When she launched the event, Shaiq chose local coffee shops as a neutral place and thought maybe a few people would show up. If not, she figured, she’d sit, have some coffee and get some work done.
The first night of Meet a Muslim, which she advertised on Facebook and in Bay Area newspapers, was held in January — and Shaiq’s expectations were blown away. Around 100 people, mostly non-Muslims, came to Suju’s Coffee & Tea. Now, she plans on holding them for as long as people come. Her next event, on Monday, is at a Round Table Pizza shop in Fremont.
“I thought, how do I reach out to ordinary people on the street … who want to meet a Muslim face-to-face and be able to ask any question without being judged or intimidated?” she said. “I have heard this time and time again, where people say that they have never met a Muslim.”
Surveys suggests Shaiq may be onto something. A Pew Research Center poll released last week found that nearly half of Americans do not know someone who is Muslim, and that those who did know a Muslim were more likely to have a positive opinion of Muslim Americans.
On Wednesday, President Obama referenced how many Americans had never met a Muslim when he spoke from a US mosque for the first time in his presidency.
“The Muslim American community remains relatively small — several million people in this country. And as a result, most Americans don’t necessarily know — or at least don’t know that they know — a Muslim personally,” Obama told the crowd, noting how the perception of Muslims was instead filled out by media portrayals which gave a “hugely distorted impression.”
Haroon Moghul, who is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank on American Muslim issues, and who attended Obama’s speech, said, “Change happens one person at a time, incrementally. Some people are so focused on the soundbites that they forgot that we have to reach hearts and minds, and that takes trust, and trust requires sincerity and patience.
“This activity isn’t just strategically savvy,” he said of Shaiq’s event. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Shaiq is a longtime, active resident of Fremont, a diverse city with a relatively large Muslim community. She’s raised four kids and served on boards such as the Center for Civic Education. She also runs an elder support group called the Muslim Support Network and sits on the Alameda County Human Relations Commission.
Woman of the Year
In 2008, then-state Sen. Ellen Corbett named her Woman of the Year — the first Muslim to win it — and the next year she was the state Democratic Party’s Volunteer of the Year. She’s charismatic, and takes time to chat with attendees both before and after her events. “This lady never sleeps,” remarked an acquaintance.
At Mission Coffee, a mostly older crowd, split evenly between men and women, huddled for an hour around Shaiq and two fellow panelists — Azam Khan, a technology content strategist from Fremont, and Jehan Hakim, a San Leandro resident and San Francisco State student. Both are in their 30s.
Shaiq began the night with an introduction and an answer to another question she gets often: Why are Muslim women oppressed in Islam?
“Let me tell you, women are not oppressed in Islam at all,” she said. “In fact they have more rights — again, there is faith and then there is culture.
“We see so much oppression, and we see so many things happening,” she continued, “like in Saudi Arabia women don’t have the right to drive — but that’s one country. There are 50 Muslim countries in the world, and we only hear about one country.”
Shaiq, Khan and Hakim didn’t have a microphone so they shouted. The crowd extended so far back — about halfway into the big shop, where non-attendees peeked up intermittently to see what the fuss was about — that some guests hollered out that they couldn’t hear.
One man asked the group about Shariah, or Islamic law, in America. In recent years, a number of states have banned or attempted to ban Shariah because of fears a foreign legal system would overrun the American courts.
“Why do you think we’re worried about Shariah law supplanting the existing law in the US?” the man asked.
“I think it’s fear of the unknown,” responded Hakim, a fiery, 35-year-old mother of four. “How much do you know about Shariah law?”
“No — it makes me wonder,” the man said, “is there a section of the population that’s actually pushing to gain Shariah law to take over existing law?”
Shaiq said no, and that Shariah instructs Muslims “to obey the law of the land.”
Some audience members used the forum to loudly proclaim their support for the panelists.
“I’d like to add this to the discussion!” said an elderly man after an exchange between Khan and a guest about mentions of violence in the Qur’an. “There’s no group of human beings that’s ever been perfect with their fellow man. It’s not about us and them — it is about all of us! You get nutjobs anywhere!”
A rousing applause broke out.
Other attendees asked how things were going for young Muslim Americans in the classroom. At one point, a man asked the group about the ruling style of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
“Is there a question in there about Islam?” replied Hakim, seemingly bewildered.
Joyce Hessler said she came to the event to learn more about Islam. She didn’t have bad feelings about Islam before, she said, but also had never really met a Muslim American, save for a lady she once talked to about candy in a grocery store.
“I feel more open about Islam,” she said after the event. “I feel better inside, and I’ve learned a little bit here. ... It’s hard to approach someone you don’t know about, so this makes it easier to be able to approach somebody that’s Muslim.”
Some Muslim Americans attended Meet a Muslim as well — out of curiosity more than anything.
Najia Punjsheri, a 29-year-old woman who lives in San Jose, said she’s worn the hijab for around a decade. Lately, however, she’s noticed a difference in how people treat her. They are “more scared or really jittery” when they see her on the street.
People ‘act different’
“They act different, they stare longer, and you know there’s a difference. ... Before I didn’t feel like that,” she said.
But Punjsheri thinks gatherings like the one at the coffee shop could help things, even if the questions are at times confrontational.
“Some of them can feel offensive to Muslims — we’re not all crazy, we’re not all out to go hurt people — and I feel it’s good for people to come face-to-face with what their fears are and actually put it out there and have us clarify,” she said. “It makes people less scared. It makes people more knowledgeable. It demolishes ignorance, which is sometimes where we harbor our fears.”
Hamed Aleaziz is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle)