A woman wearing a burqa sat on a bench Saturday at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, the fabric across her face revealing only her eyes.
Next to her, a group of children chatted on cellphones and shrieked merrily over the sound of chanting music calling the assembled masses to prayers.
At the annual Islamic Circle of North America Convention, the traditional mixes easily with the modern.
"We're just like anyone else, and I think people have a hard time understanding that," said Sakina Abduss-Salaam, a New Jersey woman who strolled through the convention Saturday wearing a black-and-gold Islamic hijab dress and holding a Starbucks iced coffee.
Abduss-Salaam said she converted to Islam 18 years ago when she met her husband, a Muslim. She said the religion has shaped her life as she and her husband have raised two children and held full-time jobs in a society that sometimes views Muslims with distrust.
"It's not about terrorism or hatred. It's about love," she said. "Being a Muslim is just like being a Christian or a Jewish person. We are all called to treat each other with respect."
The convention, which has taken place in Hartford for the last four years, is expected to draw more than 15,000 people by the time it winds down later today, said Muhammad Rahman, the convention's co-chairman.
He said most of those who have shown up this weekend are Muslims from the East Coast stretching from New England to the Carolinas, though many have traveled from Canada and Texas and other far-off points.
"It's become a very popular family event and that's what we intended," Rahman said. "We want to educate our young people about the true meaning of Islam, as well as help overcome a lot of misperceptions on the part of non-Muslims."
In a cavernous hall next to the center's main lobby, hundreds of followers knelt on the ground at various points in the day to pray. Among them were teenagers Sydul Choudhury and Daiyan Chowdhury, both of New York, who toyed with a digital camera before the prayers began.
"It's a lot of fun," said Choudhury, whose family attends the convention every year. "It can be hard when people find out you're a Muslim. You have to explain that it's a peaceful religion."
Muhammad Tahir, a photographer from New York hired to take pictures at the convention, said the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have brought hardships and understanding for Muslim Americans.
"At first, it was hard because everyone suddenly looked at you differently," he said. "But since then, I think, more people have taken the time to learn about Islam, and now more people are educated."
Throughout the convention center, signs of Muslim culture mixing with the commercialism of American society were everywhere. In the lobby, a large cartoon camel pronounced the traditional Muslim greeting, "Assalamu Alaikum," which means, "Peace be upon you." In another large hall, rows of vendors offered traditional food and clothing of Islamic cultures beside booths selling compact discs and other modern luxuries.
"I think it's appropriate that we had the convention on the Fourth of July because we're proud to be Muslim and we're proud to be Americans," Rahman said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at