Promoting spirit of understanding

Muslims: The Islamic Society of Baltimore opens its doors to raise awareness of its faith.

September 24, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The Muslims began with a reading from the Quran about Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus. They ended with a tour of the bathrooms, filled with watering cans and special spigots for head-to-toe washing rituals.

Christians and Jews who'd never stepped inside a mosque got a glimpse of things familiar and mysterious yesterday as the Islamic Society of Baltimore held an open house at its headquarters in western Baltimore County.

The event was intended to raise awareness about Muslims, who have been the targets of harassment and violence since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, in which radical Muslim Osama bin Laden is a prime suspect.

"We all have a lot to learn," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who accepted a copy of the Quran after addressing the crowd of about 300.

The three-hour program included a discussion of the pillars of Islam, including the belief in one God and in the prophets of Judaism and Christianity. Speakers stressed that Islam forbids terrorism. Visitors were treated to samosas and other snacks. Later came tours of the mosque and Al-Rahmah School on the Islamic Society's complex.

"It's wonderful that they opened up their doors," said Marjean Irwin, 67, of Catonsville, who covered her head in a black scarf that she hadn't needed in her local Catholic church since the Vatican II reforms of the mid-1960s. The retired high school teacher took off the scarf later, when she noticed many of the female visitors had bare heads.

"All we are trying to do is promote understanding," said Dr. Naseem Khan, a pediatrician from Ellicott City and a member of the Islamic Society.

Throwing open the doors of the mosque might seem like a simple way to do just that, but that step has not come easily for many Muslims, who want to hold some aspects of American culture at bay, said Mohamad Bashar Arafat, a Baltimore City police chaplain and imam at the Johns Hopkins University and hospital.

"Some of them, they feel they just wanted to protect themselves and protect their families and their culture," Arafat said. " I believe the immigrant Muslim community should have done more in terms of reaching out to their neighbors and to their fellow Americans to share with them and to create more awareness about their religion and culture."

The Islamic Society has held open houses for its neighbors in the past, and its members attend Westview Park neighborhood meetings. But the terrorist attacks and resulting anti-Muslim backlash have forced them to step up those efforts. "We have to be serious now," said Sana Afandi, 34, of Catonsville, a teacher at Al-Rahmah School. "We have to know each other."

So it was that Afandi found herself giving tours of not just the classrooms, but the bathrooms, explaining to Julie Marx of Bolton Hill why each stall has its own sink and watering can. Muslims wash after using the toilet, she said.

"Is that sort of a law?" asked Marx, who teaches at Loch Raven High School.

Afandi replied "yes" and went on to give play-by-play as a schoolgirl sat by a spigot, rinsing her mouth, nose, face, arms, ears, neck and feet. The girl was cleansing herself, Afandi explained, to prepare for one of five daily prayers.

At the Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia, members of the Dar Al-Taqwa mosque held a similar program.

"Kind of makes me wish I took that course in college, world religions," said Dennis Serpico of Columbia. A Roman Catholic, Serpico said he was surprised to learn that Islam and Christianity had "a lot of similarities."

Organizers passed out a pamphlet titled "Jesus in the Quran."

Yesterday's events were the latest in a series of meetings in recent days between Baltimore-area Muslims and representatives of the broader community.

On Friday, Mayor Martin O'Malley met with about 25 leaders of Baltimore's Islamic community at Morgan State University to listen to their fears.

The imams strongly condemned terrorism and expressed concern that brutal attacks have been committed against people who practice their faith across the country. They said they were thankful that Baltimore has had no anti-Muslim violence.

"Sisters have concerns of safety. We are on guard," said Haneefah Salim, a member of the Muslim American Society and Mastid Ai-Inshirah. "Because we dress the way we do, it's obvious we're Muslim. People attack us because we're associated with Islam."

The leaders suggested opening a City Council meeting with a Muslim prayer.

"I'll talk to Council President Sheila Dixon about it," the mayor responded.

O'Malley also agreed to move forward on suggestions from the imams, including creating a Muslim-oriented show on the mayor's cable TV Channel 21, a mayor's advisory council for Muslims and a city-sponsored education program in Baltimore County public schools. The religious leaders also suggested a position of faith coordinator be created in city government. O'Malley said Israel C. Patoka, chief of the city's Office of Neighborhoods, would take on that role.

Sun staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this article.

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