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Identity & Community

Pittsburgh Muslims Use Education, Outreach to Dispel Stereotypes

Jessica Nath
90.5 WESA
Christine Mohamed said she chose to convert to Islam because of its emphasis on seeking knowledge.

Nearly every follower of Islam living in the United States has a story of being bullied simply because they choose to worship Allah.

Humza Ahmed, a member of the University of Pittsburgh Muslim Student Association, said he was beat up after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Muslims are terrorists. Muslims are trying to kill people,” he was told.

Diyar Karim, Islam 101 teacher at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, said he’s also heard his share of stereotypes about Islam, especially that it’s a violent religion.

“You’re so violent and why’d you kill so many people, you’re a terrorist,” Mashal Wakilpoor, MSA president, recalled from an encounter. “You should go back to your country”

“Well I’m Irish and German and French, I don’t know how that’s going to work, I’ve been here forever, I’m not Arab,” Christine Mohamed said, laughing.

Mohamed is the program director of a support group at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh called Help for the Convert.

The group meets every Saturday in a sitting room near the Islamic center’s mosque.

“Our purpose for this group is to make sure they get all the support and help that they need dealing with family, dealing with work, dealing with the media and the things that they hear – the misinformation that might be brought to them through the Internet while they’re trying to learn more about their faith,” she said.

The informal meeting begins casually with friendly banter about work, school projects, kids and grandchildren before digging into the day’s topic.

The group varies in age, gender and ethnicity, but they share the experience of having to tell their friends and family why they decided to convert to Islam, which can be challenging – something Mohamed learned firsthand in 2008.

After growing up Catholic, and even working for the church for a bit, Mohamed said some family members were extremely upset by the news.

“My mother kind of pushed me out of her life for a good year, like they didn’t want to have anything to really do with me,” she said. “My father, who I was most afraid of just embraced me, and it meant a lot to me because I was so worried about him.”

Her mother eventually came around, too.

“In fact now she’ll stick up for me if somebody says something – she’ll be like ‘No, that’s not right, my daughter, she teaches at the mosque so women are not oppressed – and it’s so nice.”

Mohamed said occasionally non-Muslims also attend the support group because they know a Muslim or they simply don’t understand the religion.

“We had somebody come in before with a ‘Top Ten’ of why Islam is not a peaceful religion,” she said. “And so we tackled each one of those, and a lot of it was misinformation and taking bits and pieces without the full knowledge.”

After the support group wraps up, many of the converts walk downstairs for Diyar Karim’s class called Islam 101.

Karim believes many of the issues facing Muslims stem from misunderstanding, so he said he and his fellow teachers try to do their part to bring clarity to the situation.

“What we try to do first is try to get the basic principles and fundamentals and foundations of what Islam is and then go into more detail about topics that they’re interested in,” he said.

The course spans six weeks, with each lesson focusing on one of the five pillars of Islam along with an article of faith. On a recent Saturday the students were learning about the fourth pillar of Islam – the fast of Ramadan – and the fifth article of faith – belief in the Day of Judgment.

Just down the road on the University of Pittsburgh campus, Humza Ahmed explained similar concepts.

“What we are, as Muslims, are obligated to do is to make sure people understand what we believe,” he said.

The club is intended for Muslim students, but it also welcomes students of other religions who are curious about Islam.

That’s why each year they host a Fast-A-Thon and ask everyone on campus to pledge to fast one day for educational and humanitarian reasons.

Mashal Wakilpoor says another campus-wide event works to dispel stereotypes not only about countries with a Muslim majority, but also countries that have a small population that practices Islam.

“Islam, in reality, has like touched all of the countries all around the world,” she said.

Panel presentations are offered throughout the year in an effort to shed light on the religion while combatting some of what Humza Ahmed says are negative messages sent into the world by the radicals.

“They have a very big, loud, a very loud voice, and it causes a lot of problems for all of us because that’s not how most Muslims are – many Muslims are very normal,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed’s and other Muslim organizations in Pittsburgh will continue to raise their voices in an effort to teach others what they believe Islam actually is.