UMD Gathering Aims to Dispel Stereotypes About Muslims

By L. REED WALTON, Capital News Service

COLLEGE PARK - Parise Henry didn't know what to say when she saw what a couple of students in her high school computer class had done with her picture. The image she had uploaded the day before now wore a cartoon beard. A white dialogue bubble next to her head read:

"I'm Osama bin Laden's nephew. He bought me clothes from Sears and two camels to blow up the twin towers."

Henry, now 19 and a sophomore in biomedical engineering at the University of Maryland, has never met a terrorist. She converted to Islam in her junior year of high school. Coming from a Christian family in Brooklyn, N.Y., she had very little cause to be sympathetic to the September 11 hijackers.

Henry was one of a six-member panel speaking at a meeting Wednesday at the Adele H. Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland, College Park. Henry and others addressed a crowd of about 100, using their own experience as Muslims in America to combat misperceptions about the Islamic faith.

"I'm trying to learn more," said David Eleff, 19, clutching a green paperbound copy of the Quran translated into English. "You see on TV Muslim fanatics and, in Israel, Palestinian suicide bombers."

"There are a lot of horrible things that Christians have done," Eleff, who is Jewish, continued. "But they still have love and peace."

That Islam is a "religion of violence" is one of the misconceptions the panel tried to examine.

"It takes the most horrific tragedy...and suddenly people say, 'Wait a minute--their religion is responsible for that?'" said keynote speaker Altaf Hussein, a doctoral student in Islamic studies at Howard University.

Henry told the audience how her own father had reacted when she told him she planned to convert.

"How could you?" he asked. "What if your sister had been on the plane on 9/11?"

The Quran, Islam's holy book, does say that followers are allowed to fight back against those who attack them first. Verse 190 of the chapter called Al-Baqarah, section two, reads: "Fight in the cause of Allah (God) those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for Allah loves not transgressors."

Suicide bombers transgress the limits, Hussein said, and the hijackers on September 11 did, too.

In his speech, Hussein also tried to address concerns that Islam oppresses women.

Many of the Muslim women in the audience--and all of the female panel members--wore hijab, the traditional scarf used to cover the hair, which has been portrayed by some women's rights groups as a symbol of oppression.

"Nobody in my family wears it, but I want to start trying to wear it," said Rafia Ali, a 21-year-old senior and a member of the Muslim Women of Maryland, which sponsored the event.

Ali's parents are Muslims, who came to the United States from India in 1984, a year before she was born.

"I kind of want to ease into it," said Ali of hijab. She has an internship at the State Department and is a little worried about what people there might think.

Many of the women who did wear hijab to the event said it was a relief not to have to worry as much about their hair styles or figures because of the modest dress mandated by Islam.

Also, some Muslim men in attendance wore full beards and the thobe, a loose-fitting, long-sleeved garment designed to encourage men to dress modestly.

Despite the panelists' insistence that the Quran upholds equality, many audience members still had questions about Islamic law with regard to the way men and women relate.

Audience members of all faiths had a chance to ask questions of the panelists, which Altaf Hussein said was the most important part of the evening.

"I was surprised at how civil the discussion was," sophomore Martin Stern said afterward.

The night only had one minor disruption, when an audience member condemned the panelists for being members of a "fanatic cult."

"I am not a Muslim, and I would never want to be one," he said.

When it became clear that the young man did not have a question to ask, several panelists gently overrode his monologue with a chorus of "Salaam aleikum": "Peace be upon you."

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