“Allahu Akbar,” called the imam at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe. “God is the greatest.”
In unison, several dozen men raised both hands up to their ears, palms facing toward Mecca, the birthplace of Islam.
“Audhu billahi min ashshayta nirrajeem,” he said. “I seek God’s shelter from Satan, the condemned.”
The men knelt, folding at the waist to touch their foreheads to the floor.
Behind them, a small group of Arizona State University students and faculty sat cross-legged on the carpet, watching.
They visited the mosque Thursday as part of ASU’s Muslim Student Association’s “Islam Awareness Week.”
It’s an annual event, but, this year, organizers said, it took on a sense of heightened urgency.
With the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, which, in just the past few months has claimed responsibility for high-casualty attacks in Belgium, Turkey, and France, state and local leaders are embracing anti-Muslim rhetoric. While Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have been debating the merits of requiring Muslim-Americans to carry special identification cards and heavily patrolling Muslim neighborhoods, state leaders, in the name of fighting terrorism, have been pushing legislation to encumber the federal government’s attempts to settle refugees in Arizona.
“The media is pushing an ‘us versus them,’ ‘Islam versus the West’ narrative,” said Samer Naseredden, faculty adviser for ASU’s Muslim Student Association. “But the reality is, terrorism is by nature political. It’s people who feel they have been marginalized seeking power, using religion as a guise. Islam can never condone such abhorrent behavior.”
By inviting people to tour of the Islamic Community Center of Tempe, Naseredden said he hoped to combat misconceptions.
The group stayed silent and wide eyed throughout the prayer service, as Naseredden marched them through the various rooms of the mosque, and as, in an hour-long “Islam 101” class, he gave them a basic rundown of Muslim beliefs. Then, he served them cookies and lemonade and offered to answer questions.
“I’m a little bit confused about Islam and Muslims — how are they different?” asked a man in a micro-fleece pullover.
“Do you understand the difference between Christianity and Christians?” Naseredden asked. “It’s the same thing. A Christian practices Christianity.”
“So Islam is a religion?” the man asked.
“And Muslims are the followers,” Naseredden finished.
“Ah. I see.”
Throughout the week, club members also set up booths on campus where students could meet a Muslim and try on a hijab, the headscarf many Muslim women wear; put together a panel of Muslim converts to answer questions about their faith; and arranged a series of lectures ranging from a biographical sketch of Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammed, to an analysis of media coverage on Islam.
For the most part, Selma Ismail, a 20-year-old ASU junior and a member of the Muslim Student Association, said students who attended the events were “genuinely curious,” if a little nervous to ask questions, such as, “Why do Muslim women cover their hair?” or “Do Muslims believe non-believers are bad?” But the event wasn’t unaffected by anti-Muslim sentiments.
The Muslim Student Association bought $500 worth of signs to post around campus to advertise Islam Awareness Week. The day after volunteers had tacked them up, they returned to find them in the trash. They recovered what they could and put them up again. Then, again, someone took the signs down and threw them away.
Nearly 50 percent of Muslims report experiencing discrimination, according to a Gallup Poll — more than any other religious group. While, overall, the FBI reports that hate crimes are on the decline, attacks against Muslims are on the rise. Following a series of deadly terrorist attacks in Paris in November, such incidents across the United States tripled from an average of 12.6 percent per month to 38, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
“It’s so sad to see people hating a religion that preaches peace and love,” Ismail said. “There are bad seeds in every religion, but that doesn’t define what the religion is. I think if people would just educate themselves they’d realize that.”
After an afternoon at the mosque, even the most resistant participants left more enlightened.
Josiah Cantrell, 26, faculty adviser for ASU’s Southern Baptist club Christian Link, said he and a handful of club members came by with the express purpose of gathering information that might help them convert Muslims to Christianity.
“Not that I’ve been around a lot of Muslims at all, but all I hear about is conflict between Islam and Christianity,” he said. “On the news, you hear about terrorists, how Middle Eastern culture is so different from Western culture, and how difficult it is for us to understand each other.”
He was surprised, however, to find Islam and Christianity shared common ground: belief that the Bible is a text revealed by God.
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“I think it’s fair to say that, just like there are people who claim to be Christian who aren’t, not everybody who claims to be part of Islam is on the same page about doctrine," he said.