I have been involved in interfaith work for over a decade. The same open minded and receptive people attend those events, so it often feels like we’re preaching to the choir. Research indicates that 80% Americans have never met a Muslim. I want to make a difference by crossing that divide.
After the Paris and the San Bernardino shootings, I decided to put an ad in the local paper titled “Meet a Muslim.” What I had in mind was that I would spend an hour at a local coffeeshop. Whoever came, I would talk to. If no one came, I would just work on my laptop. That way, no time would be wasted.
I expected that a few people might come, but over 100 people attended that event. It was standing room only and it was pretty overwhelming. I invited people to ask me any questions they might have. No question would be off limits. They had all sorts of questions, but the questions were mainly related to current events. They were not interested in knowing about Islam or about me and my way of life. They didn’t ask me anything personal.
I wanted to let them know that I am an ordinary American, just like they are. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter and a community member for the past 34 years. I have four beautiful children. One was born in North Carolina, a second one in Texas and my last two were born right here in Fremont. All went through Fremont schools. At one time, I was a little league mom, football mom and soccer mom. I also have a darling granddaughter. Both my husband and I have purchased our burial plots here and intend to die here.
I have been a community activist for over 16 years. I served as a Human Relations Commissioner for the city of Fremont and joined the boards of several non profits, because I was passionate about their work. In the process, of course, they learned about me too.
9/11 changed my life. I stayed home for 10 days after that happened. My family was very scared of a backlash and since I wear the hijab (head scarf) they didn’t let me go out. I knew that many people were uninformed about Islam and Muslims and that their lack of knowledge or personal exposure was prompting much of that fear. I decided that I wanted my fellow Americans to know about me and my faith, so I started getting more involved in the community, attending as many city events as possible.
One day after the Fort Hood shooting, when a Marine opened fire and killed several of his colleagues, I went to drop my daughter off at her soccer practice. Usually, after I dropped her off I would walk around the park, but that day I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was feeling guilty, like I had done something wrong, but beyond that, I was truly scared. After sitting in my car for a while, I thought, I can’t just sit here. I drummed up the courage and got out of my car. I walked, but I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone. When I posted a mention of this on Facebook, a Christian friend was so moved that she wore a hijab the next day, not only to commute to work, but the whole day, in solidarity.
When I publicized my first “Meet a Muslim” event in the local newspaper, a non-Muslim friend noticed the ad and called me to relay his concern about my safety. He said that by putting myself out there, I could become a very easy target. He encouraged me to contact the police and inform them of my plans. So I did. I informed the police chief and he immediately offered to send an officer to the event. I’ve hosted 10 of these events so far and thank God, most people have been very respectful.
One beautiful aspect of these events is the way my friends from different faiths have participated. My technology guru is a very close Jewish friend who does social media for a living, but she is helping me behind the scenes because she is very supportive of my cause and wants to bring the community together. Another friend is a Deacon at a local church and has come to all my events. If he thinks that an answer to a particular question might be better understood if people also hear his perspective, he’ll offer that input. For example, when I’ve been asked about Sharia Law, he will give an analogy of the Canon law in Christianity and Halaqa law in Judiasm to help further explain.
I want to reach out to as many people as I can, not only in Fremont, but throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. So far, I have spoken at places of worship, service group meetings, schools, coffee shops, a senior living facility, a mobile home park and a pizza place. I also ask people who attend these events to initiate a conversation of their own with family members, friends, co-workers or neighbors. I’d love to see these conversations happening in every community in the United States.
My “Meet a Muslim” conversations received a lot of media coverage. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a cover page story and KRON4 ran a nearly 10-minute segment on their evening television news. I also created a dedicated “Meet a Muslim” Facebook page for people to get more information.
I want to reach one heart at a time.
And yes, I do speak Urdu.
Moina Shaiq has been living in the United States for 38 years. She is a mother of four children and a grandmother of one. She is also a community activist who is devoted to building bridges of understanding.