CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It was a mixture of Southern hospitality and confounding stereotypes and expectations. Of course, there was food, stuffed grape leaves and slightly spice samosas. At the end of the evening, everyone got to take home a copy of the Koran, complete with translation and commentary. In between a panel representing a range of races, ages, ethnicities and professions communicated the message that being Muslim and American is complimentary, not mutually exclusive.
Distinguished by their very ordinariness, the photos that flashed behind them – of families on trips, with children, having fun with friends – conveyed a message of “we’re a part of the community and we’re like any other hard-working Charlotte citizen.”
The organizer of “Meet the Muslims of Charlotte” – a co-founder of Muslim Women of the Carolinas — was born in Buffalo, N.Y., with a mother from Colombia and father from Palestine. Rose Hamid is a US Airways flight attendant who wears a hijab and is used to answering questions; she does it with a smile.
When the reality show “All-American Muslim” aired on cable’s TLC, colleagues that had been too shy to ask her anything used it to open up a dialogue. “Because of that aspect, the show had value,” she told me. When a conservative group complained about the show and Lowe’s canceled its ads, she said she realized that the very fact of being Muslim was considered controversial. So Hamid invited the media, community leaders, elected officials and those running for office to share an evening and contact information; a space for 150 overflowed with participants.
Hamid’s message: “When you’ve met one Muslim, you’ve met one Muslim.” That person could be a history teacher and Civil War re-enactor or a doctor, a student or the CEO of a computer company.
When Keith Stringfellow – “a country boy from Alabama” -- pulled out his prayer rug and donned a kufi at a Civil War re-enactment, he finished to find 12 people around him taking pictures. His faith makes for “interesting talks around the campfire,” he said. “People just don’t know.” Stringfellow said he embraced those kinds of moments, when “people find a lot more commonalities.”
Zubina Mawji Dahya, an internal medicine specialist who moved from small-town Pennsylvania, said she was pleased with “the healthy presence of diverse Muslim people in Charlotte. Pharmacist Jihad Saymeh said she teaches her six children and 10 grandchildren values as Arabic Muslims and as Americans, to be “loyal, truthful and proud of both identities.”
The newest American on the panel, Anas Ebraheem, in the country just two-and-a-half years, was born in Baghdad, and said he worked with the U.S. military when he became the largest Internet provider in Baghdad. Ebraheem, who married an American he met there, said he could practice Islam here “more freely than in my country.” He said he “loved that here it doesn’t matter” and admits he was “shocked” at the “is he or isn’t he” questions about President Obama’s faith.
The youngest panelist, Mariem Masmoudi, born in the U.S. of Tunisian descent, took a break from her studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to travel to Tunisia to work on youth mobilization in the cause of democracy. She said she’s found that personal criticism of American foreign policy is totally different from people’s opinions about democracy, “an ideal that doesn’t belong to one person.”
The panelists fielded questions about the decision (it’s personal) whether or not to wear a hijab and, finally, “Do Muslims teach terrorism?” Hamid told me at the evening’s close that her greatest frustration is “when people claim that they are Muslims while doing things so not in keeping with Islam,” and its peaceful message. “They know better,” she said, while noting that kind of hypocrisy is not limited to Muslims.
Warith Muhammad challenges all kinds of stereotypes. He is an African American, born in New York City and born into Islam. He is also a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer, who said his faith informed his decision to join the force, “to serve and protect.” During a break, Muhammad told me, “Everything I do, I always keep humanity first,” whether it’s assisting a homeless person or answering a domestic violence call.
The people he assists notice his name, he said, and believe he is “a man of character” because of it. Muhammad said that once, as a compliment, someone he helped told him, “You must be a Christian.” And when he said he was a Muslim, the man answered, “It’s all the same thing.”
“They’re learning,” Muhammad said.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3