More than 400 people came together Friday evening for a “Get to know your Muslim neighbors” dinner and panel discussion, to encourage dialogue among community members. The event was in part a response to anti-Muslim rhetoric during the presidential election and President Donald Trump’s executive order limiting travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The original plan was to hold the gathering at the Mosque of Nasreen in San Luis Obispo, which has held similar programs over the years, but so many people expressed interest that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints offered to host the event.
“It’s really about education, being together, getting to know each other and sending a strong message to Mr. Trump,” said Faysal Kolkailah, a co-founder of the Islamic Society of San Luis Obispo. “We are trying to send a message to Mr. Trump that Muslims, Christians, Jews and others, we are one. We are together.”
Organized by the local mosque, the Islamic Society of San Luis Obispo County and the Cal Poly Muslim Student Association, the event included a panel and an audience question-and-answer segment tackling information and misconceptions about Islam, then a buffet.
On the panel were Cal Poly engineering graduate student Rubia Siddiqi, Cal Poly computer science professor Hisham Assal, and San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce President Ermina Karim. The panelists discussed their experiences as American Muslims.
“I don’t separate being American from being Muslim,” Karim said. “I am Muslim, and I am American. Being Muslim is something you carry everywhere you go, though not everyone can see it.”
Karim said she grew up in Illinois, where her family, of Bangladesh descent, was in the minority.
I am Muslim and I am American. Being Muslim is something you carry everywhere you go, though not everyone can see it.
Ermina Karim, San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce CEO/president
“I think I faced some of the same feelings that a lot of minorities face: How do I fit in? How do I assimilate? How do I hold true to myself?” Karim said.
Karim talked about how every time a terrorist attack happens, she feels dread that the attacker may be Muslim and fuel public misconceptions that the act reflects her religion. She was working in New York when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred, and she recalled the sense of communal mourning and mutual support that united the city afterward. But since then, fear toward Muslims has increased, she said.
“Fear creates separation,” Karim said. “I feel that fear heightened since the Sept. 11 attacks.”
Stephen Lloyd-Moffett, a Cal Poly religious studies professor who moderated the talk, said that when non-Muslims get to know people of the Islamic faith, they tend to look at Islam more favorably.
“It changes your heart,” Lloyd-Moffett said.
Lloyd-Moffett, who advises the Cal Poly Muslim Student Association, has been asked if the group has terrorist connections before.
“I said, ‘Do you know what these students are doing on a Saturday night?’ ” Lloyd-Moffett said. “ ‘They’re having a bonfire after a soccer game. They’re getting together to watch movies and share meals.’ ”
Assal, who grew up in Egypt but has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, said there’s a perception that Islam is vastly different from other religions such as Christianity and Judaism, but that’s not true, he said.
“We’re all accountable for our deeds and acts,” Assal said. “We all believe in the same God.”
He said his religion has been strengthened in America and that he feels comfortable conducting prayer in public places in San Luis Obispo. He prays five times a day in accordance with Muslim practice, and that can require praying in public.
We’re all accountable for our deeds and acts. We all believe in the same God.
Hisham Assal, local Muslim and Cal Poly computer science professor
Sometimes people confuse culture with religion, such as the law in Saudi Arabia against women driving, something that is not part of the religious belief system, panelists said.
Like the freedoms offered in America, Siddiqi said, she sees a parallel with Islamic teachings of free will to practice her faith.
Still, there are challenges, including conflicts between her school schedule and religious holidays.
“I’ve had teachers say that I need a note from an imam to show that I have an excused absence,” Siddiqi said. “… It can be hard. I don’t really have a solution.”
Asked by a member of the audience about the meaning of “jihad,” Ahmed Deif, the president of the Islamic Society of San Luis Obispo, said it’s a call for Muslims to make the effort to honor and protect their faith, both internally and externally. It can mean defending Islam.
“It’s not killing for no reason or purpose,” Deif said.
Lloyd-Moffett said the religious meaning of the word “jihad” has been hijacked by terrorists for political purposes, to mean something it doesn’t.
Cal Poly student Aiysha Mahmood said she has attended other events hosted by the San Luis Obispo mosque, where local Muslims reach out to non-Muslims.
“I think what most people don’t realize is that we’re just like everybody else,” Mahmood said. “We share many of the same interests. We want many of the same things. I think in the face of all the division right now in the country, it’s so important for the community to know who we are.”