February 19, 2009 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News ServiceThe executive director of a California-based council on American and Islamic relations told hundreds of people gathered at Montana State University Wednesday night that Muslims are a very diverse group of people and simply cannot be categorized in any one way.
Muslims are "as diverse as America," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Southern California. "Day to day, American Muslims are no different than any other person in America," he later added.
With 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, which is about one-fourth of the world's population, it's important for other groups of people, such as Christians, to learn about Muslims, Ayloush said.
"We can't afford to be at odds with one another," Ayloush said.
Ayloush visited MSU along with Aminah Assilmi, director of the International Union of Muslim Women, as lecturers at a free, one-day symposium geared to local understanding of Islam. The symposium, which was sponsored by MSU's Diversity Awareness Office and the Muslim Student Association, included the evening lectures, an afternoon panel discussion and film screenings.
Ayloush, who spoke about "What it means to be a Muslim in America," discussed various pieces of information about the religion. That information ranged from the difference between Islam and Muslims (Islam is the name of the religion, and Muslims are followers of Islam) to demographics of Muslims in the U.S. to results of a Pew Research Study that noted 53 percent of Muslims said it is more difficult to be a Muslim in the U.S. since 9/11, while 40 percent of Muslims said it hasn't changed.
Ayloush also stressed that Islam is about peace.
It's "about establishing peace within yourselves and society," he said. "It means, 'I peacefully submit to God.' That's the goal of Muslims."
Ayloush noted throughout the lecture that his comments were about "mainstream" Islam, which he estimated 80 percent to 85 percent of Muslims followed.
But Islam is often misunderstood, in part because "the misdeeds of a few Muslims have tainted" the religion, Ayloush said.
To counteract misunderstanding, Ayloush discussed basic tenets of Islam. Muslims believe Muhammad is a prophet of God who lived about 600 years after Jesus. Muhammad was a human being, not a divine being, Ayloush said. And Muhammad's teachings, including those of justice, kindness, equality, respect and compassion, are ones that are shared with people of many other faiths, Ayloush said.
Ayloush said the religion's main tenets include a belief in one God, (known as Allah); messengers; scriptures; angels; and a day of judgment. The five pillars - or important actions a Muslim must undertake -- include Shahada (a statement of belief), prayer, fasting, charity, and a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Assilmi, who spoke about the status of women in Islam, said women in Islam are highly respected and have important rights.
"I wouldn't have become Muslim if women were oppressed by Islam," said Assilmi, who converted to Islam from Christianity in 1977. The change in faith resulted in Assilmi losing her job, getting divorced, and losing custody of her children, she said. Assilmi also identified herself as having been part of the American women's liberation movement.
In Islam, women are given the right to control their own wealth, they can choose who they want to marry, and they are protected from any form of abuse in their marriage, Assilmi said. Women also are allowed to divorce their husbands, she said.
And, while many people question whether the head covering many Muslim women wear is a sign of oppression, Assilmi views it as "a badge of honor."
"We wear it so we will be identified as Muslim," she said.
But Assilmi stressed that cultural laws are often different. She said her comments about the teachings of Islam reflect what the Quran says, not what is actually occurring in various countries. In practice, some horrible abuses against women are taking place in various countries around the world, she said.
Just as Ayloush stressed the importance of learning about Islam, Assilmi said it was essential that people across the world develop a greater understanding of other groups' beliefs.
People must learn to not only accept, but respect, others' beliefs, she said.
"We have to learn to respect our right to be different, to do things in a slightly different way," she said. "We need to quit trying to make enemies of each other.
"I'm not up here trying to convert anyone to Islam," Assilmi said. "I'm here because the source of war is fear, and the source of fear is misunderstanding."
Phenocia Bauerle, (406) 994-5801 or firstname.lastname@example.org