Column: End fear and hatred this Ramadan by reaching out to your Muslim neighbors

Women from the Northwest Islamic Community Center in Plymouth participate in the nightly Maghrib prayer during Ramadan. (Sun Sailor file photo by Paige Kieffer)
Paige Kieffer

By Paige Kieffer
[email protected]

During my time at the Sun Sailor, I’ve been welcomed into the amazing community at the Northwest Islamic Community Center in Plymouth.

What started out as covering a local news story quickly turned into a life-changing experience where I’ve developed incredible friendships and learned about another faith outside my own.

More than 10 years ago, I would’ve been afraid to enter any of my local mosques. I’m ashamed to say now that I was Islamophobic and fearful of Muslims. Much of this fear was caused by my limited knowledge about Muslims and receiving most of the information from broadcast media.

When September 11 happened, I was 12 years old. I was more interested in reading the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, watching the newly released “24” TV show and rocking out to Destiny’s Child.

The news reported that the 9/11 attacks were from the Middle Eastern terrorist organization Al-Qaeda. I thought, what is terrorism? Who is Osama bin Laden? I was clueless.

For years, the news featured news on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and featured almost no coverage of Muslims on a personal level. It was all negative. I began to wrongfully associate the knowledge I was receiving on the war on terrorism and placing it on my local Muslim neighbors. I couldn’t be more wrong.

One of the biggest issues was because I hadn’t met any of my local Muslim neighbors. I had attended a predominately white and black Catholic middle school and a predominately white high school, so my cultural sphere was quite limited. In addition, my family also didn’t know any of our Muslims.

In high school, we began to learn about the Middle East and Islam and I became enthralled with all this information I never knew.

In my junior year, I became friends with a fellow student who was half-Iranian and her father was Muslim. She taught me a number of things about Iran and eventually invited me to travel to the country.

I was so excited! I wanted to go. My parents, who knew very little about the country and grew up during the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979 were more than concerned about me going, but eventually agreed. The next summer, I traveled with my friend to visit her family and tour the country.

I visited the country in the prime of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reign and there was a lot of anti-American sentiment from the government. This though was not the opinion I got from all the amazing Iranians I met.

I began see and get to know Muslims on a more personal level. We discussed religion and politics but also I had a number of conversations about pop culture, cooking and family.

I was shocked and amazed that my experiences with Muslims were so vastly different from how they were portrayed on the news.

When I started at the Sun Sailor in 2015, there was a call for someone to write a story on Ramadan. I quickly volunteered. While I still knew very little about Islam, I wanted to know more and meet local Muslims living in Minnesota.

I learned that Ramadan is a month of fasting that commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. For 2017, Ramadan is from May 26-June 24 and is considered a time of peace and prayer.

Muslims fast during Ramadan from sunrise to sunset, and break fast at night with a community meal called an iftar. I attended a few iftar dinners and I was introduced to hundreds of the mosque members who were nothing short of friendly, warm and welcoming and have become dear friends.

Islamic terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda have often been associated with the overall faith of Islam. Through getting to know my local Muslim neighbors beliefs and learning about what Islamic terrorist organizations believe, I have come to see that their beliefs are drastically different.

Many local Muslims desire that Minnesotans put political and religious views aside and just meet with them on a personal level. The Northwest Islamic Community Center often partners with many people of different faiths for community service events and sitting down to talk and have dinner.

Here is a chance to meet your Muslim neighbors. Every Ramadan, the Minnesota Council of Churches partners with local mosques to hold interfaith iftar dinners. If you can’t attend, don’t be afraid to go to any local mosque and introduce yourself. You will be welcomed with open arms. I promise.

Here are a few iftar dinners that you could attend:
-Islamic Center of Minnesota, 7:30 p.m., Friday, June 16, 1401 Gardenia Ave. NE, Fridley.
-Northwest Islamic Community Center, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, June 17, 3300 Plymouth Blvd., Plymouth.
-Multicultural Advisory Committee/St. Louis Park Police Dept. Joint Community Police Partnership, 8 p.m., Wednesday, June 21, Lenox Community Center, 6715 Minnetonka Blvd., St. Louis Park.

To register, visit bit.ly/1S7SjTq.

I believe that attendance of these events will help reduce Islamophobia and also help Muslims feel welcome in our community. According the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in 2016 Islamophobic incidents rose by 57 percent in the United States.

By just meeting with your Muslim neighbors you can take a step towards ending fear and hatred.