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Published: Saturday, 9/11/2010

Muslim author brings message of peace to Owens

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

Church bells were set to ring throughout the region at 8:45 a.m. Saturday, nine years to the minute after a terrorist-hijacked airliner slammed into the World Trade Center.

In New York and Tennessee, recent efforts to build mosques have been met with highly publicized protests, vandalism, and threats.

The pastor of a small church in Gainesville, Fla., asserted for weeks that his congregation would burn 200 copies of the Qur'an - the Islamic holy book - in a bonfire Saturday night, but changed his mind on Thursday.

These and other indications of rising anti-Islamic sentiment in America is something that Zohra Sarwari hopes to reverse. An American Muslim author and lecturer, she will give a talk at Owens Community College on Monday titled "No! I Am Not a Terrorist!"

"A lot of people have anger and animosity. But I think it's because of a lack of understanding and a lack of knowledge," Ms. Sarwari said in an interview from her Indianapolis home.

She said a lot of the anger directed at Muslims springs from fear and ignorance, and can also reflect a person's own pain and suffering.

"I don't know what they've been through in their past. Their hurt and anger could be caused by something they've been through in their life that I don't know about," said Ms. Sarwari, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of California at Davis as well as a master's of business administration degree from American Intercontinental University.

"You have people who were raised without education and knowledge and they're going to hate someone, whether it's Muslims or minorities or women or men," she said. "All you can do is educate these people and hope the education affects them. I do my part and, I always say, 'Let the Creator take care of the rest.'"

One local mosque making an effort to build better relations and understanding with non-Muslims is the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, which will hold an open house Saturday.

The mosque at 25877 Scheider Rd. in Perrysburg Township will open its doors from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and its members will be available to lead tours, answer questions, and pray with visitors on what the mosque is calling a "A Day of Unity and Healing on 9/11."

Abdel-Wahab Soliman, chairman of the mosque's public relations committee, said the members invite visitors to ask questions and to feel free to pray in the main prayer room.

"This is a house of God. It is open to everyone and everyone can pray in our prayer area," he said. "The main thing is we want people to come and ask questions and socialize with Muslim people so they would know that we are not any different than anyone else."

He said members of the mosque, whose twin minarets and golden dome are highly visible at the juncture of I-75 and I-475, strongly condemn terrorism by religious extremists.

"Muslims totally disagree with them in the first place, and they are criminals. It's really unfair to Muslims because these people create fear and anger and hatred and bad feelings," Mr. Soliman said.

Ms. Sarwari said such outreaches can be effective in building positive relationships and overcoming ignorance.

While it is understandable for people to fear terrorists, Ms. Sarwari said, it is wrong to lump the vast majority of peace-loving Muslims with a handful of extremists who distort Islam to justify their violent acts.

"If you look at some of the polls, more than 50 percent of Americans admit that they have no clue who we are, yet 48 percent say they dislike us. If they don't know who we are then how can they dislike us?" Ms. Sarwari asked.

The challenge for American Muslims today is to get involved in their community and erase negative stereotypes, she said.

"People don't want us in their communities for lack of knowledge, so we have to keep reaching out. Yes, we'll face hardship. Yes, we'll face challenges. I face people yelling at me and cursing at me. I get it all the time, but I don't let it bother me," she said.

She added that she personally does not agree with plans to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York City.

"From my own judgment, we have to use wisdom whenever we're doing anything. We have to make sure when we build a mosque that it's in an area where no one feels hurt," she said. "I would not build it there. I would build six blocks down. Then at the end of the day we will have better relationships with the people who were hurt."

Mrs. Sarwari has written nine books, including No! I Am Not a Terrorist!, the topic of her Toledo-area talk.

When she speaks on the subject, she said, many people in the audience are quick to ask questions. A few come looking for a fight.

"Some want to do battle with you, but I'm not there to battle. I'm there for education," she said.

Ms. Sarwari, 35, wears a traditional Islamic hijab, or head scarf, and conservative clothing. She was born in Afghanistan and left when her family fled the Soviet invasion in 1980, arriving in the United States at age 6. She lived in New York, Virginia, and California before moving to Indiana.

Wherever she goes, she said, from New York to California and places in between, people stare at her because of her attire.

"It happens all the time. I can go into a store and everyone is staring, gawking right at you. … You'll get people calling you names," she said.

She did some volunteer work at a nursing home, for example, where a woman in her late 70s or early 80s loudly and angrily confronted her over her head scarf.

Ms. Sarwari said it was a teachable moment.

"I sat down and started talking to her," she said.

She told the woman that by dressing conservatively she was following in the footsteps of Jesus' mother, Mary, whom Muslims hold in high esteem.

"Then she quieted down. The woman said she never thought about it that way before," Ms. Sarwari said. "Once you can relate to people why we dress like we do, you build a bond rather than separate us. I try to bring up the similarities."

Ms. Sarwari will speak to Owens students in the afternoon and give a public talk on No! I Am Not a Terrorist! at 7 p.m. in the Center for Fine and Performing Arts at Owens Community College's Toledo-area campus, 30335 Oregon Rd., Perrysburg. Admission is $10.

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154.



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