Promoting Religious Understanding

April 27, 2012

Masjid Al-Rahman

Bassem Chaaban meets with students at Masjid Al-Rahman. (Photo by Judy Watson Tracy)

Bassem Chaaban isn't naïve about the image problem facing the American Muslim community post 9/11. As director of outreach at the Islamic Society of Central Florida, Chaaban faces the issue with eyes wide open, spending much of his time trying to reeducate the non-Muslim community and addressing the immense amount of religious and cultural misinformation in the U.S. today.

“That there are a lot of negative stereotypes and anti-Muslim rhetoric in the world today isn’t fair,” Chaaban said. “But it’s the reality. Rather than be angry, we choose to take responsibility for this ignorance and be active in educating the general public. In the face of suspicion and hatred, education is our best tool.”

Chaaban works at Masjid Al-Rahman, Orlando’s first masjid and home to The Center for Peace, a non-profit, outreach arm of the Islamic Society of Central Florida that came into fruition on September 12, 2001, as the Muslim community’s direct response to the tidal wave of anti-Muslim sentiment that grew after 9/11.

Chaaban and his team of outreach volunteers fulfill their reeducation mission in two ways: by speaking to local churches and community groups; and by inviting Central Floridians to visit local mosques, such as Masjid Al-Rahman, for tours given by him and his volunteers.

In recent years, Chaaban has begun to ponder the value of inviting an outside, neutral party to make recommendations as to how The Center for Peace could be more effective in the “rebranding” of Islam in Central Florida.

When Assistant Professor of Political Science Eren Tatari asked him if he’d like to have a handful of Rollins students assess his mosque’s outreach program, he jumped at the chance. “I was totally open to it,” said Chaaban. “I told them I wanted them to be as constructively critical as possible.”

A few weeks later, the seven students enrolled in Tatari’s Immigration and Multiculturalism in the U.S. course made the first of three visits to Masjid Al-Rahman and began working on the Mosque Community Project. A blog the students created chronicles this and other experiences in the course.

“The students were asked to act like PR consultants for the mosque,” said Tatari, who designed her community-engagement-designated course to critically examine immigration and multiculturalism in the United States. The class had previously worked with the Office of Multicultural Affairs during MLK week, as well as the Farmworkers Association of Apopka to address issues of race and immigration. “I saw the mosque project component of the course as giving the students an opportunity to make the most meaningful and long-term impact in the local community.”

Alexandra Sol ’12 is one of the course’s students. “Most of us knew only the basics about this Muslim community when we started the project,” she said. “In my opinion, the basics are not enough. The Muslim community is really stigmatized, particularity here in the U.S. I think the only way you can slowly remove the stereotypes and misconceptions is through people getting involved in the community.”

Sol and her classmates created a 10-page report outlining their ideas for making the mosque and its tour more inviting and accessible to non-Muslim visitors. Suggestions included improving the information on the website to give clearer guidelines for how visitors should dress, and updating the mosque’s Facebook page with more community-centered photographs.

Diego Villasenor ’13 ‎ approached the entire experience with a lot of sensitivity. “I felt a little disinclined to make suggestions,” said Villasenor, an environmental studies major and member of the Interfaith Living Learning Community. “I tried to steer it so that our suggestions would not seem too intrusive. But in the end, I think the mosque got some good ideas for how they can improve their image for non-Muslims. This was meaningful schoolwork.”

Professor Tatari was pleased with the project’s outcome. “When we talk about peace, it all comes down to people from different backgrounds meeting in person and sharing just an ordinary interaction. This helps to humanize the ‘otherized’ minorities,” Tatari said. “When these students see a Muslim person, pass by a mosque, or hear someone saying something about Islam, I think they will now feel more knowledgeable and comfortable. Hopefully they will even be advocates for the minority groups, like the African-American and Muslim communities, they have worked with in this class.”

Most importantly, Chaaban was thrilled with the report. “They brought some great ideas that I would never had thought of,” said Chaaban, who later presented the ideas at a meeting of the imams of the greater Orlando area. “The students were open, respectful, and sensitive, but also really helpful. This was exactly the sort of outside perspective I had hoped for.”

By Kristen Manieri

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