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As the Myths Abound, So Does Islamic Outreach

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."

Mansoor watches intently, sensing a crossroads that will send the seminar in one of two directions. Maybe this will be one of the good sessions, when attendees exchange business cards and say, "Peace be with you," as they walk out the door. Or maybe it will be one of the bad sessions, such as when an attendee said he was surprised she spoke English, or a student undermined her by distributing fliers headlined, "What They're Hiding: The Real Islam."

The mother of two pre-teens, wife of a cardiologist and a recent participant in an American Patriots tour of Civil War battlefields, Mansoor had never planned to answer for so much hostility. Originally from Sri Lanka and raised in England, she moved to the United States in early 1992 and rarely spoke publicly about her faith to non-Muslims until Sept. 12, 2001. Hours after the terrorist attacks, a church in nearby Newington, Conn., invited Mansoor and her husband, Reza, to explain their faith to the Catholic congregation. The Mansoors asked for time to consider. A local imam had told all hijab-wearing women to stay in their homes for at least three weeks, and the local newspaper had printed a story about the possibility of Muslim internment camps.

"We were terrified, but we decided either we face this now or we pack up and leave," said Reza Mansoor, also originally from Sri Lanka. "If we were going to stay, we had to explain our faith. What was the other choice? To live in a country without self respect or dignity?"

The Mansoors walked into St. Mary's in Newington on Sept. 12 to eerie silence. They explained the basic tenets of their faith, condemned terrorism and left without incident. News of their visit spread to more churches, to more towns, and the Mansoors were transformed into accidental ambassadors.

If the passage of time has eased Aida Mansoor's timidity as a public speaker, it has done little to soften her audience. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 29 percent of Americans see mainstream Islam as advocating violence and 48 percent have unfavorable views of Islam, the highest such percentage since 2001.

Mansoor's class includes Rickey Reed, a census worker in attendance because he wants to "know more about them beyond September 11th." Ken Steller, 63, came in part so he can educate friends who believe all Muslims are extremists. "In America, we hear one thing and assume it's that way for all Muslims," Steller says. "So many people just wait for the information to come to them. I like to go get it."

After Abdul-Karim finishes his introductory lecture at the library, Mansoor plays a series of media clips compiled during the past year. The 2008 presidential election, Mansoor says, revealed the worst of Islamophobia in the United States. "Anytime you turned on the TV, they were saying, 'You know, maybe Obama is a Muslim,' " she tells the class. "Well, first of all, he's not a Muslim. But more important: So what if he was? What's wrong with that?"

Mansoor turns out the lights and starts the projector, which the class takes as a cue to relax. The nurse pulls out her BlackBerry and types out an e-mail. The human-resources director for the City of Hartford doodles on her notepad. One of the census employees closes his eyes as Mansoor plays the first sound bite, from a broadcast of Michael Savage's radio show:

"We have a right to know if [Obama's] a so-called friendly Muslim or one who aspires to more radical teachings," Savage says.

Then comes a clip of Sen. John McCain at one of his campaign rallies, responding to a woman who asked whether Obama was Arab: "No ma'am," McCain says. "He's a decent, family man, citizen . . . ."

Eventually, Mansoor finishes with a video of an experiment conducted by a television station. The clerk at a bagel shop pretends to refuse service to a Muslim woman, and the camera focuses on other customers' responses. Three customers congratulate the clerk for taking a stand against "un-American terrorists." Several others leave the store in protest. One man, moved to tears, tells the clerk, "Every person deserves to be treated with respect, dignity."

Mansoor stops the tape and turns on the lights. She's crying. The attendees set down their pens and cellphones. They're watching now.

"This always brings tears to my eyes when I see it," Mansoor says. "This is what we face every day. Every day. Maybe it gives you a little bit of an idea what it must feel like. What are your reactions?"

Nobody speaks.

In a few minutes, Mansoor will begin to collect a stack of forms labeled "Professional Development Evaluation," on which attendees rate their experience in diversity training class. They will judge Mansoor's effectiveness on a scale of 1 to 4, and she will receive mostly 2s, for "satisfactory," and some 3s for "very good." But the feedback she cares most about is whatever happens next, standing in front of 30 strangers, teary-eyed, and waiting for somebody to respond.

Finally, Lillian Ruiz, the human-relations director, raises her hand.

"I think we need to stand up like we did in the 1950s," Ruiz said. "You watch things like this and it makes you want to just fight back and do something, because it's so sad. Obviously, discrimination is still very alive."

"Yes," Mansoor says. "Yes. Thank you."

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