HOUSTON – The curious gathered as quickly as the table was set up. The interested came to ask their questions even before the informational materials and brochures were spread. The volunteers from WhyIslam, sported bright yellow T-shirts adorned with the question “Is Life Just A Game?” across the front and with the invitation to “Meet A Muslim”, splayed across the back. What’s more, they certainly drew the attention of passersby during a recent outreach activity in a large and popular Houston, Texas, park.
One man walked up to express his support of Muslims.
“I just want to say that we welcome you here and you belong here in this country,” he told organizers.
Another young woman wanted to discuss the recent immigration travel ban initiated by Pres. Donald Trump. She said she believed the president made his controversial move in the interest of national security, but had ultimately sent the wrong message by targeting Muslim-majority nations.
Others discussed the notion of an afterlife while some learned more about the literal meaning of Islam and the role of Jesus in the faith. Some were interested in Islam’s stance on polygamy.
Mustafa White is a board member of the Houston chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America, a non-profit group established in 1968 of which WhyIslam is a part.
Although he was not at the recent outreach event in the park, he said he’s not surprised to hear that non-Muslims were intrigued by his group and the information members were offering.
“What we’re seeing now is this curiosity about Muslims. People want to know ‘Who are these people, what is their religion, and what do they stand for?’” he told AboutIslam.net.
“We are seeing people come to us and ask if we stand with those people (terrorists) that they see on the news. They ask if we believe in jihad and blowing things up.”
White and those who work with him welcome such questions. He said it’s vital for non-Muslim Americans to have a clear understanding of Islam in light of the onslaught of negative and often faulty information they are fed, many times from the news media, information White termed “total garbage.”
“You’ve gotta help people sort through the mess because they’ve been educated through Fox News, right-wing groups and Islamophobes who tell them what our religion is,” he said.
“We tell them to come and meet a Muslim because our religion is not what you think, but (when you listen to those sources) then you’re letting those people define our religion for you.”
In talking with non-Muslim Americans, White said highlighting certain points is important. He stressed that he and others involved with WhyIslam talk about what Islam actually means – the submission to Allah in peace – focus on the belief in one god, the religion’s stance on and reverence for Jesus and his mother Mary, and Islam’s strong grounding in justice.
“We let people know that we stand on the basis of justice for all people,” White said.
“We’re not anti anything except injustice.”
However, he made clear his group’s efforts are not necessarily focused on bringing people to Islam.
“Our work isn’t about conversion,” he said.
“It’s about helping people to understand who we are and what we stand for as people and as a society.”
White does his part in getting the message out.
He travels to local colleges and other institutions giving speeches on Islam. He and his organization work with leaders of other religions in offering interfaith activities to promote understanding and friendship.
He encourages his fellow Muslim brothers and sisters to help him in his outreach efforts. In fact, he emphasized you don’t have to follow his lead and hit the speech circuit to help clear the cloud of suspicion and misinformation that often impedes and damages discussion about Islam.
White said a great way to combat that information is for Muslims to show themselves and to demonstrate they are engaged in their communities.
“Muslims are part of the social fabric of America and have been for hundreds of years, but people still view us as foreigners and some of them feel invaded,” White said.
“So we need to step up and be part of our communities, because people who know Muslims aren’t afraid of us. It’s the people who don’t know any Muslims who (often) have a problem with us.”
White suggested Muslims join their children’s’ schools’ parent teacher organizations, run for local office or be active in neighborhood groups.
“You have to come out of the shadows and be a part of the discourse to show others that we’re just normal people, that our religion is normal and that we like the things that everyone likes,” he stressed.
“We have to have a high profile to show people that we’re here to stay.”
For more information about WhyIslam, visit www.whyislam.org.