Friday, July 2, 2010

Muslims In America

MUSLIMS ASK: “DO THEY REALLY KNOW WHO WE ARE?”
GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN



From their cramped office behind a Southeast Side barber shop, four young men try to get the word out: This is who we are, this is what we believe.

As Muslims in an overwhelmingly Christian community, they see it as their responsibility to tell what Islam truly teaches to non-Muslims and other Muslims. They aim to do so through Sunnah Publishing, an educational nonprofit they formed four years ago.

“Living in America, we’re the ones who suffer from misconceptions about Islam,” said Maaz Qureshi, 27, a Pakistani Grand Rapids resident since 1997. “It is our religious obligation to clarify what our religion stands for and what it doesn’t.”

Hamza Kantarevic, like Qureshi, sometimes wears the flowing robe, long beard and skullcap of traditionalist Islam. He knows he looks exotic, and perhaps threatening, in conservative West Michigan.

“They might see us and know we are Muslims and live amongst them,” said Kantarevic, 24, a Bosnian who has lived here since 1999. ‘But do they really know who we are?”

He and his colleagues at Sunnah Publishing hope to answer that and other questions at their first public conference, ‘Islam in America,’ beginning Friday, a few days before Ramadan begins.

The seminar features Muslim scholars from Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and New Jersey addressing a wide array of topics, from what Islam teaches about violence and women to Muslim positions on intelligent design and the environment.

Sunnah Publishing aims to provide answers by “turning back to Islam in its original form,” Qureshi said.

Some local Muslim leaders say they know little about Sunnah Publishing and will attend to learn more.

Ali Metwalli, a leader at the Islamic Mosque and Religious Institute, said the organizers have a “peaceful mindset” but are more conservative than most local Muslims.

Qureshi accepts the conservative label, but says traditional Islam unequivocally condemns the militant extremism that has “messed up the image of Islam.”

“The idea of committing suicide and (making) a plane crash into a building or strapping a bomb on your chest has nothing to do with Islam,” said Qureshi, a database specialist at Pitney Bowes Legal Solutions.

Though not formally educated in Islam, he and his colleagues say they have studied and consulted with top scholars.

Salaahudeen Ali, a lifelong Grand Rapids resident, and Muhammad Muridi also are publishing partners.

They formed the publishing firm with their own funds, selling books and CDs and building a Web site including articles and audio recordings. They also teach classes on Arabic and creeds from their office at 613 Fuller Ave. SE.

Though they say top Islamic scholars have consistently condemned terrorism, the publishers add local Muslims have not been vocal enough about their beliefs.

“Nobody else is going to do it,” Qureshi said. “You kind of have to put yourself out there.”

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