New York Library Association. - The eBulletin

“The day after Orlando…”*

Submitted by Mark Curiale, Guilderland Public Library Public Information Officer

On the evening of June 13, 2016, three local women gathered at the Guilderland Public Library to present a program. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the event: The library is known for its author talks, concerts, and popular, educational programs. And since Guilderland is a diverse community which includes a significant Muslim population, the program -- “Getting to Know Your Muslim Neighbors and Learning about Islam” – was intended to help people overcome stereotypes.

The Library planned the event months in advance.  Their promotion spoke to some of the issues in the news: “At a time when Islamophobia is on the rise, it is good to dispel stereotypes about the Muslims who may be living next door to you. Join us to meet, mingle with, and ask questions of three local Muslim women with varied backgrounds. Panelists will give a brief introduction to Islam in the world and in America. They will address the distinction between cultural and religious beliefs, and discuss common misconceptions about Islam.”

The event was held in the library’s largest meeting room, which seats 120 comfortably.  Few seats were empty that evening.  Perhaps it was the nature of the program, or perhaps it was the events of the day before that made the event particularly relevant: On June 12, Omar Mateen, a young security guard who had sworn allegiance to ISIL, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a terrorist attack/hate crime inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.

Fazana Saleem-Ismail opened the session by reading a solemn statement about her horror that the massacre was done by someone who claimed to be a Muslim.

“Omar Mateen does not represent us.” She then quoted from the Koran: “Whoever kills a human being, it is as if he killed all of mankind.”  A moment of silence followed.

Ms. Saleem-Ismail then shared the dais with her friends Alison (Amina) el-Sheikh and Safiyyah Stewart, and together they offered some history and dispelled some misconceptions about Islam.  

Ms. Amina el-Sheikh (born in Oneida, NY, to American Christian parents) noted that there are some 7 million American Muslims, and that the first Muslims to arrive in America were African slaves who were brought here in a slave ship that landed in Virginia in 1619.

The presentation continued with Ms. Saleem-Ismail (born in Staten Island, NY, to Muslim immigrants from Sri Lanka) offering a translation of the word Islam: “peace through submission to God.”  Islam is the name of the religion followed by Muslims.  She spoke of the Five Pillars of Faith – declaration of faith (Shahada), prayer five times daily (Salat), charity (Zakat), fasting during Ramadan (Sawm), and Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) – and then dispelled some misconceptions:

  1. “Muslims worship a different God than Christians and Jews.”  Not so.  God in Arabic is “Allah.” Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is one of the Abrahamic faiths.
  2. “Muslims don’t believe in Jesus.”  Again, not so: Muslims highly respect Jesus as a prophet of God; Jesus is mentioned 93 times in the Koran; and Jesus’ mother, Mary, is mentioned more times in the Koran than in the Bible.
  3. “Jihad is terrorism.” Jihad actually means “to strive with all one’s might,” and is incorrectly referred to as a “holy war” in many media. The highest form of Jihad is spiritual: a struggle against immoral temptations, and refraining from wrongdoing.

And then Safiyyah Stewart, a college student whose American-born parents independently converted to Islam, related how she was bullied in high school for wearing a hijab – the traditional headscarf – but found more acceptance in college.

A question and answer period closed the night.  There were many polite, inquisitive questions.  But perhaps the best exchange was related in the Altamont Enterprise’s coverage of the evening in their June 15, 2016 posting:

“Two Muslim men in the audience, both of whom happened to be scientists, described in some detail how accommodating bosses and co-workers had been in finding time and space for their prayers.

“’For every one person hating you,’ said one of the scientists, Abdul Jabbar, ‘thousands of Americans want to embrace you. I’m proud of being an American, a Muslim American.’

“The crowd gave the panelists a standing ovation.”



*This headline is an excerpt from the Altamont Enterprise’s headline – “The day after Orlando, Muslim women share their lives and faith with library crowd” -- coverage of the evening in their June 15, 2016 posting.