Mamdouh El-Aarag smiled as he looked at the crowd of 300 people squeezed into the Spokane Islamic Center’s main prayer hall Tuesday night.
“It really warms my heart to see all of you here tonight,” he said. “This is the United States of America that I know and love.”
The gathering was the third in a Spokane Interfaith Council series called “Meet the Neighbors,” which aims to provide an introduction to the diverse religions practiced in Spokane. Each month, the public is invited to a different house of worship to meet leaders, hear a brief presentation on the faith and ask questions.
El-Aarag, an Islamic Center board member, spent a few minutes telling the group about the history of the mosque and the makeup of Spokane’s Muslim population – a diverse group including immigrants, their American-born children, converts and foreign exchange students.
“You name a country, we probably have somebody from that country,” he said.
Interfaith Council President Skyler Oberst said he hoped the series would promote “learning about our differences, but focusing on our similarities.”
“We’re going to make some new friends. You’re required to do that tonight,” he told the group with a smile.
The first Meet the Neighbors event was held in November at Temple Beth Shalom, a Jewish synagogue on the South Hill. Temple member Pam Silverstein, who helped organize the event, said Spokane has a strong history of coming together to combat religious discrimination.
“As part of the Jewish community we have had our share of feeling put on the spot” when the Aryan Nations was active in the Inland Northwest, she said. “The Spokane community stepped forward … and said we will not have this in our backyard.” Now, Silverstein said she’s happy to see people showing Muslims the same support.
The second event invited people to visit the Sikh gurdwara, or temple, in Spokane Valley. For that event, the council made a video introducing people to the temple and explaining how worship works. Temple member Subarna Floura-Nagra helped organize the event and said she hopes to help make Sikhism more approachable.
“It’s a great project,” she said. “It’s really good especially in this day and age where, particularly in relation to Sikhs, there’s a lot of mistaken identity.”
Sikh men wearing turbans are often mistaken for Muslims, she said. The FBI has investigated more than 800 hate crimes against Sikhs since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Oberst said he hoped the series would help improve Spokane’s religious literacy.
“Everybody seems to understand that we’re better together,” he said.
At the Islamic Center in Spokane Valley, audience members asked about the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the makeup of Spokane’s Muslim population and the role of Arabic in prayer.
When someone asked about the role of women in Islam, Islamic Center member and Washington State University Spokane nursing professor Kawkab Shishani marched up to the front of the room and took the microphone from El-Aarag, drawing laughter. She told the audience about growing up in Jordan in the 1970s, where her family encouraged her to be herself and get an education.
“There are millions of families just like my family all over the Middle East and all over the world,” she said. Shishani wears a head covering, often called a hijab, and said dressing modestly helps her focus on herself “as a human being” instead of worrying about her appearance.
“It may sound like restriction, but to me it’s liberation,” she said, adding that her hijab has never prevented her from going zip-lining or rafting.
Lewis and Clark High School student Libby Palmer attended the event with her mother, Natalie. She asked mosque members to share what they think is the most beautiful part of Islam and listened reverently as several people spoke about values of peace, compassion and care for others.
“It’s not just a religion. It’s a way of life that gives you peace with your creator,” El-Aarag said.
After the questions ended, Palmer paused for a moment to touch her forehead to the ground and reflect on the night, in a way similar to how Muslims pray.
“I feel like I’m one step closer to being able to call myself a global citizen,” she said. “I am so honored and humbled to be in this room full of such love.”
Most of the questions were about Islamic faith and practices, but discussion also turned toward Islamic extremism and media coverage of terrorism.
One woman said she understood most Muslims are peaceful, but wondered how terrorist groups justify attacks using verses from the Quran.
“I don’t understand how one book can have so many different interpretations,” she said.
El-Aarag said every religion has people who will use their interpretations of faith to justify violence, including Islam, Christianity and Judaism. He explained that the holy book was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a 23-year period, and understanding its intended meaning requires knowledge of Arabic and the historical context at the time.
For a casual reader “to take a verse out of the book and say, ‘This verse means this’ is not fair to anybody,” he said.
Shishani said extremist groups like the Islamic State, often called ISIS, call themselves Muslim while destroying mosques across Syria and Iraq.
A 2014 report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found nearly 9,347 Iraqi civilians were killed in the first eight months of the year and identified the Islamic State as the primary actor.
“Thousands of Muslims actually are being killed,” Shishani said. “We don’t hear about them.”
“She really made the point that extremists do not represent Islam, or any religion,” said Mary Noble, a member of Temple Beth Shalom who attended the event.
Asked how the community is handling calls from some politicians for bans on Muslim immigration to the U.S., El-Aarag held out his hands, gesturing toward the crowd in the room.
“Right here. This is how we’re handling it,” he said, drawing applause.
After about an hour of discussion, people were invited to stay, enjoy food and socialize. Many attendees said they’d learned more about the similarities among Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
“We all have faith,” said Peggy Doering, the director of Valleyfest, who was raised Catholic.
Islamic Center leaders were surprised by the high turnout and said they’d been skeptical when Oberst warned them a few hundred people might show up.
“It was amazing, incredible. We wish we could do it more,” El-Aarag said.
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