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Your Muslim Neighbor: Pleasanton mosque reaches out to dispel misconceptions, engage community

Next open panel talk set for Sept. 30 at Muslim Community Center

Shadab Ilkal and her daughter Zoya after a morning prayer session at the Muslim Community Center of the East Bay last week. (Photo by Erika Alvero)

Back in December 2015, a woman in Castro Valley threw coffee at a group of Islamic worshipers alongside Lake Chabot, after ranting at them and telling them that they were "deceived by Satan."

The incident was video-recorded and made the rounds on social media.

It also made a group of Muslims at the Pleasanton mosque realize they needed to do something -- coming at a time of already increased Islamophobic sentiment across the country, just a few weeks after the San Bernardino shooting when a husband and wife who practiced Islam killed 14 people and injured 22 others.

"We realized that the xenophobia against Muslims was starting to rise, and that it would probably be wise if we could give a chance for all of our neighbors to get to know their Muslim neighbors a bit better," said Dr. Asad Tarsin, an Islamic scholar, emergency physician and active member of the Muslim Community Center (MCC) in Pleasanton.

And thus, the "Your Muslim Neighbor" panels were born.

The purpose of the panels, organizers say, is to debunk misconceptions about Islam and to allow nearby fellow residents to get to know the local Muslim community. The series started off as a single event a month after the Lake Chabot coffee-throwing incident, and then was re-awakened a year later in the aftermath of the presidential election.

They've now held a total of seven panels, four of which were at the MCC in Pleasanton, located at 5724 West Las Positas Blvd., Suite 300. The next panel is set to take place at the MCC on Sept. 30.

The panel discussion offers a chance for the community to get to know the MCC, and ask any questions they may have about Islam -- no matter what the question is.

"Islam has a lot to offer the American community. It can be a source of peace and benefit and comfort not just for those who practice it and believe in its tenets but also for those who are lucky enough to know Muslims personally," said Hina Khan-Mukhtar, a teacher and parenting columnist who also sits on the Your Muslim Neighbor panels.

Tarsin and Khan-Mukhtar are joined on the panel by Sara Kim, a white Muslim convert who runs a Lafayette ranch devoted to outdoor education; her husband Mike Kim, a Korean-American Muslim convert who is a former Navy officer and now the chief investment officer at a private real estate development and investment firm; and S. Mahdy Amine, a teacher and senior vice president of a cancer diagnostic and research laboratory.

The questions they receive at the panels run the gamut.

Some people ask about the Sunni and Shiite divide, while others ask about Sharia -- Islamic law. Once, a man approached the podium and bluntly stated that all he wanted to know was where the panelists stood on ISIS.

"We were like, 'we think they're bad, we don't like what they're doing,'" recalled Khan-Mukhtar. The man said "Thanks" and walked out.

The panelists welcome these kinds of questions because it means the attendees are being honest.

"I think there might be a fear of being politically incorrect, of looking stupid, of not wanting to offend people," Khan-Mukhtar said. "So that might prevent people from asking questions. But we try to make them feel comfortable, to make it clear that there is no such thing as a stupid question."

"And that we will not consider them racist," added Humera Nawaz, an MCC volunteer at the panels.

"At the last panel somebody said, 'I'm afraid that if I ask this question, people will think I'm the racist in the room.' I assured them, you should ask them whatever you want, because I think that somebody else might be thinking the same and not speaking up. We're in a very safe, open environment. That's the reason we're here," she said.

Many questions they receive are based on misperceptions, according to Tarsin, and require some unraveling before they can be answered. "Muslims are in this really unique scenario, where people really feel like they know us better than we know ourselves," he said.

The country's landscape has shifted, at least in terms of attitudes towards people of their faith, the panelists agree.

They all have seen a change in neighbors' reactions to Muslims over the years, from less-frequent play date invitations for their children to outright hostility. Their children have faced bullying for their religion, leading some of the panelists to pull their children out of public school.

All five panelists now run a homeschooling cooperative in Lafayette that serves over 35 East Bay families, including their own.

Sienna Ranch is an outdoor education institute for young people, adjacent to the panelists' homeschooling cooperative in Lafayette and run by panelist Sara Kim. Khan-Mukhtar recalled two years ago that "Sienna Ranch got some complaints from community members, saying 'I'm not going to bring my kids to this ranch if you guys are going to harbor terrorists there.' Calling us the terrorists."

Times have been difficult, but there's also been a huge outpouring of support, the panelists said. After President Donald Trump's inauguration in January, a neighbor dropped by the MCC with a plate of brownies, saying that she didn't know what else to do, recalled Khan-Mukhtar.

Tough times also present an opportunity for dialogue, to discuss questions and topics that may have been buried under the surface previously.

One MCC board member, a Pleasanton resident, told the Weekly she decided to start wearing a head scarf about a year ago, a move that brings her pride as a practicing Muslim but also means her teenage son no longer wants her to attend school events -- he doesn't want his classmates and teachers to know his mother is Muslim.

"I can't hide my faith," said Zarina, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her son's privacy. "I walk into the classroom, people look at me, they have their guards up, here's someone different. But at the same time, I'm a mom. And I have to watch out for my kids and be involved in what they're doing, participate."

The unfamiliarity factor is a driving force of the "Your Muslim Neighbor" panels, Tarsin said.

"This not meeting and knowing Muslims we saw as an important barrier to break," he said. "A lot of people just didn't know where to go, and they would show up to these panels with this enthusiasm, like, 'this is great, I would have never thought of how to do this or meet with people or chat with them, or come to a mosque.' For many people this was the first time they had been to a mosque. So it's also about providing that opportunity."

Tangential to the "Your Muslim Neighbor" panels, the MCC has held various interfaith events and has established relationships with nearby Christian and Jewish religious leaders.

Michael Minton is a Franciscan brother who used to serve at the San Damiano retreat center in Danville. Over the years, he's brought over 300 Christians to mosques in the Tri-Valley.

"A couple years ago it became apparent to me that Muslims are one of the peoples in our culture that people are extremely afraid of," Minton said. "I realized that part of my ministry should be to help Christians cross that line to embrace people who they're afraid of."

Some local government officials have also become involved with the mosque, with local Assemblywoman Catharine Baker (R-San Ramon) and Pleasanton Mayor Jerry Thorne making appearances at the March 13 "Your Muslim Neighbor" panel.

"We need to build mutual respect and understanding, rather than continuing to see a division, and we do that by getting to know one another," Baker said by email this week. "I also wanted to show my own respect and solidarity with constituents I'm proud to represent."

"I do believe that their decision to have these panels was a good idea," Thorne added. "I think they eliminate a lot of the fears and suspicion that many may have about having Muslims as neighbors."

"The one thing that I heard from this panel that was different from past interactions with the Muslim community was a complete and strong renouncement of extremism and extremist groups such as ISIS," the mayor said. "It actually reminded me of the way most Christians feel about the KKK and its use of religious symbols and ceremonies and trying to establish themselves as a Christian organization."

Widespread opinions and misconceptions won't be eliminated overnight, but the panelists hope that the "Your Muslim Neighbor" events will slowly affect change, starting at a local level.

"I'm okay with drops in the bucket," Tarsin said.

"Personally I am. If one person leaves having changed their minds, for me that's enough. We've walked in here sometimes when it's packed to the max and we've done panels where it's sparse, and there's probably 40 people or so. For me, it's not a matter of numbers. Each person is a person worthy of reaching."

Comments

19 people like this
Posted by Muslim Community Center
a resident of Las Positas
on Sep 7, 2017 at 6:29 pm

Thank you Erika and the Pleasanton Weekly!

Community: Please join us for a lunch and panel with your Tri-Valley Muslim neighbors at the Pleasanton's Muslim Community Center - East Bay on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017.

Agenda:
12 to 1 p.m. - Lunch in the MCC Banquet Hall
1 to 2 p.m. - Panel
2 p.m. - Break
2:05 p.m. to 3 p.m. - Q&A

Free RSVP requested at: www.mcceb.org/muslim-neighbors

Questions? mcc-listens@mcceastbay.org


21 people like this
Posted by Wonderful idea
a resident of San Ramon
on Sep 7, 2017 at 7:00 pm

Thank you so much for organizing this event! There is so much misinformation in our world today. If we could just meet and have an honest conversation, our country would be in a much better place.


9 people like this
Posted by Jill M
a resident of Valley View Elementary School
on Sep 8, 2017 at 9:52 am

I second the thanks for hosting this event. I want you to know that I'm glad you are here! I would like to encourage you to host another event in the evening, so I can bring my kids. (I apologize if you hosted events the in the evening hours previously and I was unaware!)


4 people like this
Posted by Laura Navarro
a resident of Vintage Hills
on Sep 8, 2017 at 3:44 pm

I've had the pleasure of talking with Muslims and followers of many other religions through Interfaith Interconnect. This group is open to all and embraces our diversity in a very supportive and safe environment. They meet once a month at different church/temple/center locations. Check them out on Facebook, Web Link


16 people like this
Posted by Spudly
a resident of Laguna Oaks
on Sep 8, 2017 at 5:21 pm

Outstanding event. I hope the residents in our area who have biases can attend this and learn. This is the type of activity that makes for strong communities. For any haters (sorry for the harsh term) but DO NOT COMPLAIN IF YOU DO NOT ATTEND:)


9 people like this
Posted by Mark Yolton
a resident of Castlewood
on Sep 9, 2017 at 8:27 am

I was pleased to see this as the cover story on our "Pleasanton Weekly." Bravo for giving it prominence. Proud of my community for being open. Kudos to the MCC and panelists for their proactive outreach. You're welcome here!


1 person likes this
Posted by Spojmie Nasiri
a resident of Pheasant Ridge
on Sep 9, 2017 at 5:13 pm

Thank you Pleasanton Weekly for showcasing our Muslim community and I'm proud to call Pleasanton my home. You make us PROUD!


Like this comment
Posted by Muslim Community Center
a resident of Hacienda Gardens
on Oct 9, 2017 at 3:26 pm

Muslim Community Center is a registered user.

Thank you for all who made it out to our luncheon and panel on Sept. 30. If you missed it, here is a recording of the panel:

Web Link


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