I am a sucker for solidarity. A sap for sibling-hood. I get teary at communities helping each other. My heart bleeds more often than is maybe healthy. I don’t care. There was no parking at the Birmingham Islamic Society’s open house today and I was utterly verklempt. I have never been prouder of the city I live in.
Maybe my feelings and opinions mean nothing to you, which, perhaps they shouldn’t. But there was barely standing room in the Center. People were shuffling about full of genuine, thoughtful questions and arms full of brochures and various literature, including copies of the Quran held close to chests. Teen volunteers in hijab smiled and greeted families, men in scrubs on break from hospitals, and young couples with dyed hair and matching combat boots.
Tables with information about CAIR replenished t-shirts to purchase more often than I have ever seen at an event. Members of the Center carried on with their prayers like there was no one around them, then chatted with non-Muslim women as they tried on headscarves and took selfies for their Facebook check-in.
People went through the center like a museum, reading the informational posters that cover the Center’s walls. The posters know their audience. “What is the Muslim’s View on War?” “What Does the Quran Say About Jesus?” “What Does Sharia Mean?” “Peace and Islam.” And while it is heartbreaking to know that people worship surrounded by posters explaining misconceptions about their own faith, it was obvious that conversations were engaged that educated the visitors to the fullest. Members of the Jewish community walked around in tzitzit and kippot, admiring the striking similarities between the aesthetics of our prayer books and interior design preferences. My friend’s 5-year old daughter asked a 5-year old girl helping her sister put hijabs on women if being a Muslim girl was like being a Jewish girl. It was the kind of scene you only wish the world could engage in. Witnessing it was something hard to fathom, but belief isn’t easy.
The Center offered three classes during the day. I missed the first, but Ashfaq Taufique recapped the class in his first afternoon class on Sharia law, what it means, how it is applied, and how to educate people who only understand Sharia in the context of fear-mongering newscasts. He gave the audience (which filled the entire prayer space) a condensed Islam 101 with some hard-hitting facts about why people have come to the conclusions about Islam that exist in our present media. The beauty of Ashfaq is his sense of humor, his jolly disposition, his spiffy outfits, and his ability to charm a crowd, speak to the general public, and get difficult points across with grace.Ashfaq described the struggle for the Center to even exist in its current location.
The second speaker was a convert who grew up in the Church of Christ in Alabama. She spoke on feminism and Islam with the biting wit of a professional stand up and the intensity of anyone with a PhD in women’s studies (which, somehow, she does not have). She was incredibly knowledgeable with an elegant approach to answering the crowd’s questions; I have not had that experience, here is what I have heard from people who have, please ask them if you ever get a chance and have a meaningful dialogue.
People lined up for food, hung out in the parking lot, played basketball, and some stayed to pray. It was the same feeling as leaving from a good meal with good company: warm, familiar, healing.
I have been nervous about the survival of minority religions in Birmingham. Recent hostility toward our communities has caused serious concern. There has been an uneasiness in the air around the most frequented aspects of our lives, both from within and outside of our communities. This is an anxiety that is difficult for the outsider to fully understand. Not that we ask them to. Not that we need them to.
Ashfaq said it perfectly: it is vital at this time that our neighbors become our ambassadors. Muslims in Birmingham need support. They need people who understand what they are about, how they conduct themselves, how they live their lives. They need allies. They need friends. They need you, yes, you reader, to come to their open houses, to come to their events, to come share a meal, to come with open arms and open minds.
If you want to help support the Birmingham Muslim community, you can start by liking the Birmingham Islamic Society on Facebook. Also, go like Ashfaq’s page. The more knowledge you share, the stronger we can be as a city, and the more we can mean it when we say we’re glad you’re in Birmingham.