Muslims in Howard County reach out to their children's public school educators, inviting them to share a meal

Teaching teachers about Islamic faith


The call to prayer echoed through the packed room. While River Hill High School senior Khalid Shourbaji sang in Arabic, Sayeed Hassan translated.

"Allahu akbar," repeated Hassan, president of the Dar al-Taqwa mosque, for the public school administrators at his table. "God is the greatest. Ash-hadu an la ilaha illa'llah. I bear witness that there is no god but God."

The sun had fallen over Columbia, and members of the local Muslim community were settling down to iftar, the meal that breaks the daylight fast during the month of Ramadan.

On this evening last week, they invited teachers and administrators of the Howard County public schools system to join them. More than 100 educators packed the room at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, where children who are their students during the day explained to them the tenets of Islam and the meaning of Ramadan.

"It's one part of a broader effort to let the community know that the vast, vast majority of Muslims are just like them: law-abiding citizens who want to contribute to the community," said Rita Sallam, a member of the Howard County Muslim Council.

"The terrorists that you see on television do not represent Islam. The people in this room are Islam," she said.

Muslims across the country are using Ramadan, the month in which they believe that God began to reveal the Quran to the prophet Muhammad, as an opportunity to reach out to the broader community.

The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest Muslim civil-liberties group, co-sponsored an iftar on Capitol Hill last week for congressional staffers. The Maryland Muslim Council and the Baltimore Jewish Council are planning a holiday dinner Thursday in honor of both Ramadan and Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.

The Howard County Muslim Council formed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to promote a more positive understanding of Islam. Its charitable arm, the Howard County Muslim Foundation, has organized food drives, health fairs and, recently, support for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Council members framed the iftar last week as a way to thank the county's educators - and to explain their faith to them.

"It is to educate the educator," said Hassan, who lives in Columbia. "Those who teach our children should know more about their religion, their culture, their manner, their behavior, their way of thinking."

Students quizzed their teachers on Islam, performed an interview skit and showed videos about Ramadan and the council. During a question-and-answer session, teachers asked whether students needed a private space to pray at school, why Ramadan falls at different times of the year, and whether athletes are excused from fasting.

Teresa Waters knew the answer to the last one. The head of the technology department at River Hill High School, she also coaches the girl's basketball team. She remembers a tryout who refused even to drink water during practice. Waters attended iftar to support her Muslim students, she said, and to learn more about their beliefs.

"It broadens my understanding, and maybe it makes me more compassionate," she said after a meal that included Middle Eastern and Asian dishes. "Kids want to feel like they're accepted and they're on an even playing field. As far as I'm concerned, it's all about respect."

School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, school board Chairman Courtney Watson and County Executive James N. Robey also attended.

"I learn something every time I come to one of your events," Robey said. "We all need to learn from each other. In that regard, we'll have a better chance of having world peace."

Sallam, who lives in Clarksville, had hoped that the teachers would ask about terrorism, or the role of women in Islam.

Shourbaji, the River Hill senior, said the public schools had been accommodating to Muslim students. He said he had never been the target of discrimination or slurs. But Farrah Askari, a freshman at Atholton High School, said she had heard classmates say "bad things about Islam."

"I don't want to get up all in their face, but sometimes I do," she said.

Mishiel Ayub, a seventh-grader at Clarksville Middle School, said she was glad to see that some of her teachers had come. "I want them to know more," she said. "I'm glad people are coming to learn."

Howard County Muslim Council members say they hope the iftar with teachers will become an annual event.

"The main problem that we have in this country is ignorance," said Irfan Malik, a member of the council board. "Me not knowing you, you not knowing me. When you don't have information, when you're getting information in pieces from here and there, you get misinformation."

He expressed regret that the event had been scheduled during Yom Kippur. The Jewish Day of Atonement is considered the holiest day of the Hebrew calendar.

"We are learning as well," Malik said. "It's a two-way street."

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