The Mansoors: Teaching Americans Islamic Diversity Training

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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Aida Mansoor expects a skeptical crowd for her diversity training class, so she arrives an hour early to create a reassuring atmosphere. She tapes serene posters of mountains and rivers to the walls of the Hartford Public Library and displays a stack of pamphlets emphasizing that, yes, "Muslims also love and respect Jesus." A snack table outside the room is divided into two sections, with homemade samosas on one half and generic sugar cookies from a local grocery on the other.

"We don't want to risk insulting anybody," says Mansoor, 41.

Seventeen years in this city, a house in the suburbs, almost a decade spent explaining Islam at training seminars across the state -- and still Mansoor walks on eggshells. Even in Hartford, a liberal city rich in diversity, practicing Islam in 2009 means she ignores the jokes about her hijab and dismisses the hate mail sent to her mosque. It means she spends a Thursday morning in late May standing here, a few steps inside the entrance to the library, repeating a Muslim greeting to 30 strangers as they file silently past. "Assalaam alaikum," she says, over and over, and then translates. "Peace be with you."

Her attempts at cross-cultural connection can sometimes feel futile, Mansoor says, but her energy this year has been fortified by a powerful new ally: President Obama, a Christian who has promised unprecedented outreach to the Muslim world. More than 85 percent of Muslims in the United States approve of Obama's performance as president, according to a recent Gallup poll, which is his strongest endorsement from any religious group. Obama will travel to Egypt to give a speech about Islam on Thursday, his attempt to bridge two cultures -- America and Islam -- so often at odds.

"What he says could go a long way toward dispelling the myths," Mansoor says. "For a long time, Muslims have been the bad guys in this country. There is so much hate and misunderstanding, and he might be able to help the world overcome some of it."

Before Obama hosts his global diversity seminar, Mansoor begins her local equivalent. Her class of 30 includes Christians, Jews, blacks, whites and Latinos. Most are here at the recommendation of their bosses. A nurse and a teacher were told that diversity training would help them interact with Muslim clients; a human-relations expert from the city of Hartford takes copious notes to share later with co-workers. Three representatives from the U.S. Census sit in the front row with a list of basic questions -- "How do you greet a Muslim? What are the Muslim holidays?" -- aimed to improve their 2010 survey.

Mansoor has enlisted help from a few Muslim panelists and Kashif Abdul-Karim, the resident imam at her mosque. She sits near the front of the room while Abdul-Karim begins the seminar with a question.

"What do you think of when you hear the word 'Muslim?' " he asks the students. In his hand, he carries a packet of statistics from the American Religious Identification Survey that offers some possible answers: 67 percent are younger than 40; 46 percent are college-educated; 12.4 percent are engineers. "Just shout out your answers," Abdul-Karim says, and the students oblige.

"Poor, uneducated immigrant."

"Arab!"

"Foreigner."

"Terrorist."


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