July 8, 2007
By HILARY WALDMAN, Courant Staff Writer
Laurie and Stephen Janecko could have spent Saturday afternoon swimming in their pool.
Instead, the Roman Catholic couple from East Hartford chose to mingle among 15,000 Muslims - most of the women covered in head scarves or full-length veils - gathered for a convention in Hartford.
This is the third year that the Muslim group, the Islamic Circle of North America, has held its annual convention in Hartford. Families mostly from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania crowded the Connecticut Convention Center to shop at a huge bazaar and attend seminars on topics including "what you need to know before you get married" and "Muslim teen rebellion: causes and solutions."
For the first time, the group opened its doors to non-Muslims in an effort to dispel suspicion and misconceptions about the faith and its followers, especially in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and last week's bombing attempts in Great Britain.
With about 100 other non-Muslim guests, the Janeckos were invited to observe as the faithful faced the direction of Mecca and bowed for prayers, dine on a Halal lunch of lentils and curried chicken and learn that they as Christians share many traditions with the followers of Muhammad.
In a meeting room separate from the practical seminars on how to live as a better Muslim, the guests listened to lectures that focused on areas of concern and misunderstanding, such as terrorism and Islam's treatment of women and its views on other religions.
Jamal A. Badawi, a professor emeritus of management and religious studies at St. Mary's University in Nova Scotia, Canada, said terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam are probably sincere about their faith but terribly misguided.
So are suicide bombers, who believe that as martyrs they will gain a hallowed place in heaven, he said.
"The Quran does not give greater value to the life of a Muslim than to that of a non-Muslim," Badawi said.
Speaker after speaker answered questions from the audience written on white index cards. One guest wanted more information on why women and men must be separated in mosques. Even in the public venues at the convention center Saturday, entrances to the men's and women's areas were marked with large signs directing "sisters" to one doorway and "brothers" to another. The dining area was segregated.
Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who converted to Islam after she was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, said the rules for keeping women separate from men and requiring them to wear modest clothing are meant to be respectful, not oppressive.
She added that although domestic violence has been a problem in some Islamic countries, violence against women is not condoned in the Quran, and "it's wrong, it's wrong, it's wrong." She said polygamy is allowed in Islam, but the religion requires that men who have two or even three wives must treat each one equally. Honor killings also have no place in Islamic culture, she said.
As for separation in the mosques, Ridley said she would rather not bow down with her forehead to the ground and have a man seated directly behind her.
"We should be opening mosques more often so people can see they are wonderful areas of quiet and contemplation and really quite spiritual," Ridley said. "You can see there is nothing sinister going on."
Quoting from the New and Old testaments of the Bible as well as the Quran, Imam Shabir Ally, a religious leader from Canada, told the guests that Jews, Christians and Muslims all draw from the same religious traditions.
As a matter of fact, he said, the Quran refers to stories from the Jewish Torah and from the gospels of Christianity.
"Moses, Jesus and Mohammed are brothers in faith," he said.
Why then, asked a participant, does the Quran talk about punishing Muslims who leave the faith and warn Muslims not to befriend people of other religions?
That, Ally said, is another vestige of ancient times and proof that the Quran must be interpreted in current social context, not literal translation.
The warnings against venturing outside of Islamic society dates back to a time early in history when the followers of Muhammad were being attacked on many fronts and everybody in the group was privy to military secrets. A person who broke with the faith might divulge life-threatening insider information to Islam's enemies, he said.
"This hardly prevails in today's society," Ally said.
The Janeckos said Saturday's forum went a long way toward dispelling many of the myths about Islamic culture. They said they were impressed by how welcome they were made to feel at the convention center.
"The media portrays terrorists and Muslims as one in the same," Stephen Janecko said. "Most people portray them as a radical religion, and they're not." The couple said they were glad they skipped the pool.
But at a time when reports of bias against Muslims are still on the rise in the United States, security was tight at the convention center Saturday. And although few spoke about feeling oppressed, one adolescent boy's T-shirt carried a telling message: "Frisk Me, I'm Muslim."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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