Muslims around the world are celebrating Ramadan, a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset. In Rhode Island, Muslims are observing this month-long holiday at the same time that a Warwick resident, who is a Muslim convert, is facing charges of plotting to support foreign terrorist groups. The Muslim community is concerned this could cast their community in a negative light.
At sundown atop a hill in North Smithfield, a minaret and dome poke out from a grove of trees. This two-story mosque, Masjid Al-Islam, is the largest of four mosques in the state with a community of 3,000 Muslims.
Inside the mosque, men on the first floor and women on the second floor are getting ready for Iftar, the evening meal meant to break fasting during the month of Ramadan. They lay out cups of water and small bowls of dates and watermelon on top of white butcher paper on the floor.
For Muslims, Ramadan is the most important month of the year. It marks the month when the Quran, the holy book of Islam, was revealed to the Prophet Mohamed. It’s a time for extra prayer and good deeds.
For North Smithfield resident Erin Sarr, it’s also an opportunity.
“I feel like this is a blessed month that we really do have a chance, if we do what we are supposed to do, to really show ourselves out in a better light, and something different than the media portrays us,” said Sarr.
Recently, a young man in Warwick was arrested and charged in a federal court in Boston with conspiring to support foreign terrorist groups. He pled not guilty. And last week, a young white man opened fire at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The first thing that crossed Sarr’s mind when she heard of that shooting was, “Oh my god, please don’t let it be another Muslim,” she said, “because it does bring a lot of light to the bad. And there is good and bad in every community, in every race, in every religion, in everything.”
Sometimes Sarr fears for her family’s safety, especially for her children. She sends them to an Islamic school in West Warwick.
“When I’m dropping them off at school, I’m thinking, ‘There’s so much going on with crazy things in the world,’ you know, you do have that sense of alert,” said Sarr. “You know, when you go to the grocery store, or anywhere, the mall, you always… have that in the back of your mind, you feel kind of hated sometimes.”
Attleboro resident Saad Iqbal worships here. He said he feels frustrated by the lack of understanding about Islam. He said he respects all religions, because he sees them as all coming from God.
“When people talk about, ‘They [Muslims] are not right people,’ and you know, ‘They kill people.’ It really hurts, it really does.”
Those stereotypes – that Muslims are extremists or violent – may stem from lack of exposure or perspective, suggests Sarr. “Because honestly if I wasn’t Muslim, and I didn’t know what I know, I would be scared, too, with all that negativity you hear in the news,” she said. “I feel like it’s up to us to really try to show us in a different light. Maybe somebody might be giving you a funny look, maybe just smile at them and say hi, and break the ice, and offer conversation.”
Imam Mufti Ikram agrees many Americans may have a distorted view of Islam. He points out extremists are a tiny fraction of the 1.8 billion Muslims around the world.
“They’re a very, very small minority,” said Ikram. “Yet the way the picture is being presented to the people is as if all the Muslims are extremists, or all the Muslims are bad, or all Islam is bad, which is even worse. So that’s very unfair.”
After the church shooting in Charleston, Ikram asked local police to increase security around the mosque. It’s something he does any time bad news break.
“We ask them to do everything to protect our congregants, our communities, and they do,” he said. “They increase patrols and they try to stay close, within a minute’s response.”
During Ramadan, the mosque also invites members of other religions to join the evening meal. Ikram emphasizes – like most religions – Islam promotes peace not violence. His mosque is open to anyone who wants to have a better understanding of Muslims.
Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender contributed to this story.
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