Lee students meet Muslim neighbors in Chattanooga
A few Lee students recently embraced the opportunity to connect with some local neighborhood Muslims during an event at the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga on Saturday, Feb. 11.
The event, titled “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor," is hosted by the ISGC every year, but drew a record crowd of over 1,000 people on Saturday, according to Bassam Issa, one of the founders of the center, in a Chattanooga Times Free Press article.
The event flyer invited community members of all religions to bring their families and friends to take a tour of the mosque, enjoy free food and ask any questions about Islam.
"The country has been so divided. It's been split in half," Issa said in the Times Free Press article. "If you don't know someone or something, you're going to be afraid of that person or thing. People here can get to know us as human beings, neighbors, who are just like them."
As guests walked through the doors, they were greeted by children before making their way into the gymnasium, where a variety of information about Islam was presented on boards. They could pick up a free Quran, engage in conversation with Muslims and observe prayers.
Brandon Wilson, a sophomore theology student at Lee, said everyone at the event was “really hospitable.” Wilson, who declared himself an atheist from age 11 to 19, spent two years studying Islam prior to becoming a Christian and found the event to be very informative.
“I feel like Christians do an injustice to themselves by not understanding the views of Muslims,” Wilson said. “But at the same time, I feel like it’s the unfortunate situation that a lot of Christians are uneducated enough in their own faith that they would be easily swayed by [things] that in truth have no real merit.”
Wilson said he was glad he went to the “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” event and looks to go back in the near future. He also added that he has considered completing his cross-cultural experience at the Islamic Center.
“I’ve always admired Islam in the fact that the entire faith is about submission,” Wilson said. “To be a Muslim, the word itself means to submit to God. And while I believe that their perception of God is perverted, the devotion to supposed deity is inspirational in a sense.”
Adreda Hill, a Muslim who regularly attends the mosque, called the event “beautiful.” Hill said she was raised as an Apostolic Christian but converted to Islam about seven years ago.
She helped answer questions on Saturday and said it “took a lot of courage” for the community to experience a different religion.
“There has been a lot of negative media even prior to the election and it causes a lot of fear in people,” Hill said. “It really takes people reaching out, you know, extending the olive branch in order to be able to shut down those fears or open up so people can feel welcome enough to come and learn.”
Since the mosque was packed with so many visitors, sophomore political science student Ben Absher did not get to speak with as many Muslims as he would have liked to but said he will “definitely go back.”
“I’m very glad that I went, especially because a lot of the circles that I’ve grown up in have had a very narrow understanding of Islam,” Absher said. “I wanted to get a perspective on the Islamic faith that wasn’t just secondary or an even more indirect source than that. I think a firsthand account is always better.”
Absher said he thought the ISGC “did a great job” of presenting the tenets of Islam and providing “more in-depth” reading materials to visitors.
“I am curious to what extent [the information] is a one-sided, narrow scope of Islamic faith or what percentage of Muslims would adhere to everything we learned that day,” Absher said.
Debra Alobeidy, a Muslim who has associations with families and tries to participate in events at the ISGC, distinguished between the Islamic faith and groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS.
“I would love for many to become Muslim and embrace Islam, but if nothing more I hope that what comes out of [the event] is the respect and the understanding of what Islam really is, not what al-Qaida and ISIS and these plants from the minds of evil,” Alobeidy said.
Alobeidy said she does not know why people join terror groups, but thinks there could be a variety of reasons.
“Maybe there’s something missing in their life, something psychological, illnesses or maybe the way they were brought up has something to do with it,” Alobeidy said.
Another Muslim woman jumped in to comment that they are “usually politically motivated” and that “it really has nothing to do with Islam.”
Alobeidy, who has been Muslim for 17 years after converting from Christianity, said she had been an active Christian for most of her life until she became “frustrated” with the responses she received from the church when she asked questions.
She said she stopped going to church and met an Egyptian man who told her about Islam.
“I went home after that, and I studied the Quran and Islamic teachings for three months and was convinced that it answered all the questions that I had instead of just telling me ‘believe’ and ‘accept,'” Alobeidy said. “All my questions were answered and that was it.”
Wilson said that attending an event such as “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” may be emotionally straining for some Christians who are not as well-versed in their own faith. He said while it is good to try to understand others’ beliefs, it’s important to exercise caution.
“Somebody who believes that Jesus died and reduces the entirety of Christian philosophy and theology to ‘be a nice person’ could easily be swayed by anything,” Wilson said. “At that point I would just say to them, if you’re going to be open and dialogue with someone, be sure to have good catechesis in your own faith first.”
Absher said he believed the intentions behind the event were to “eradicate any stigma people have” and provide a means of understanding.
“Even if that mosque is not converting people, they’re contributing to having a better understanding of Islamic faith, which I appreciate, even if I’m not a Muslim or adhere to Islam,” Absher said. “You can’t give a good defense for your own faith if you don’t understand why and what other people believe.”