Guest Commentary

Donna Ziegenhorn: Huge misperception of Islam requires more understanding

Asha Sheikh (from top), Gudon Abdi and Kadija Yusuf served food after prayers last month at the Masjidu Nuur Islamic Community Center, 2639 E. 11th St.
Asha Sheikh (from top), Gudon Abdi and Kadija Yusuf served food after prayers last month at the Masjidu Nuur Islamic Community Center, 2639 E. 11th St. The Kansas City Star

Islam is meant to be a peaceful religion. True or false?

In a (nonscientific) poll conducted by The Star after the Paris terror attack (and reported on Jan. 14), 61 percent of respondents said false.

Dismayed by this large majority, I reflect that — despite mighty efforts toward broadening education and interaction between our dominant and nondominant population — we face a long walk. But it’s a walk that’s needed for a 21st century in which the positive, humanistic threads of all our world’s religious (and nonreligious) traditions can be known and valued.

How is this to happen? Here are three suggestions:

1. Broaden our exposure to media sources.

I receive a weekly email called the Muslim News Digest, which circulates nationally and is put together in Kansas City by Zulfiqar Malik. It’s a treasure trove, providing a variety of news items from national and international sources. A recent newsletter offers:

▪ The Muslim who risked his life at a Paris kosher market to save seven Jews. Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com.

▪ U.S. Muslims condemn Paris terror attack, defend free speech. Zafar Siddiqui, Star Tribune, www.startribune.com

▪ Hip in hijab: Muslim teen girls took my breath away. Telegraph, www.telegraph.co.uk

You can sign up for the free digest at: heartlandmuslimcouncil@gmail.com.

2. Encourage more education in K-12 schools

The word “religion” often scares teachers and administrators in public education, sometimes with good reason. But learning about the religions and cultures of history is critically important. Humans are tribal beings, and we’re essentially driven to make meaning out of our lives. We can’t know too much about how people have done so historically, and how they’re doing it now.

We can teach about religion without teaching religion, and there are numerous experiential resources to draw on. Think Nelson Gallery, think drama, think interfaith exposure. Cultural Crossroads distributes an excellent free e-calendar on local opportunities. It’s also a great resource for parents. Sign up at www.culturalcrossroads-kc.org.

3. Most important, if you’re not Muslim, get to know someone who is.

One of the richest experiences of my life was interviewing Kansas City Muslims (as well as individuals of other traditions) about what they had lived and the events that had shaped their lives. Many stories found their way into the play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy.”

My Muslim friends cringe when an extremist act of terror is committed in the name of Islam. My heart hurts for them. They’re people of generosity, good spirit, and, yes, of peace.

I’m convinced that social change happens — old prejudices and patterns begin breaking down and restructuring — at the level of personal relationships. Our local Muslim community is more pro-active and open than most realize. Individuals among our dominant culture have a responsibility to reach out. More than that, they (we) have the opportunity. New understanding, unexpected insights and valued relationships await us when we do.

Contact the Greater KC Interfaith Council for ideas and events to expand your circle of friends: www.kcinterfaith.org. It may be too much to hope for a dramatic change in the poll results referenced above. But perhaps, short term, we might at least flip the ratio from 60/40 to 40/60.

Donna W. Ziegenhorn is a playwright and author of “The Hindu and the Cowboy,” a play inspired by stories from Kansas Citians of numerous faith and cultural traditions. She lives in Fairway.

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