The month of Ramadan ended over the weekend and the local Muslim community celebrated at the Islamic Center of Maine in Orono with parties filled with food, balloons, henna and barefoot children.
Eid al-Fitr is the breaking of the fast at the end of a month of religious meditation and lifestyle restrictions that are meant to make Muslims more mindful of God.
“I’m at the highest point — top notch — this is our own kind of ecstasy,” said Abdulraheem Sbayi, UMaine student and member of the Muslim Student Association (MSA). “Right now, the state I’m in, nothing can hurt me.”
Sbayi may find that high feeling comes in handy as tensions continue to mount in Maine and around the country. The proposed Park51 Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero has ignited passions on both sides of the issue. Strong feelings fueled in part by exhaustive media coverage have revealed a deep mistrust of the Muslim American population, leading to protests, arson, nasty words and at least one death.
“I feel that the mosque could be anywhere else. I’m not sure what the imam is trying to show, maybe that Islam is not why that happened. But because of freedom of religion, I think it is not other people’s choice,” said Lamine Boubacar, a third-year transfer student from Southern Maine Community College and member of the MSA. “It is not a victory; it is an insult.”
The planned “International Burn a Quran Day” in Florida did not occur after intense pressure from the Obama administration, but the threat received worldwide media coverage causing protests and at least three deaths in Afghanistan, according to The New York Times.
“It is hard to understand why someone would burn a Koran, or put it in the news — CNN, The New York Times — everywhere. It encourages hateful thoughts regarding America,” Boubacar said. “I was talking to my brothers in Niger, they had heard and were thinking bad about America, just because of one crazy person.”
The president of the MSA, Muna Abdullahi, was also confused by Florida pastor Terry Jones’ intentions.
“I don’t know what purpose is served, what kind of satisfaction he’s going to get,” she said. “I question his religious views, not because they are different from mine, but the violence and hate he is spreading — he doesn’t seem like a real Christian. I feel sorry for his followers.”
The Portland Press Herald also made national news this weekend by running a front-page story about the Eid celebrations in Portland on Sept. 11, then issuing a front-page apology on Sunday and Monday acknowledging that a number of readers found the coverage “offensive.”
Despite the amount of recent media attention, the students agreed they had not personally felt any increase in tension or discrimination. However, living in a 96 percent white state does have its drawbacks.
“There is less diversity here, so it is more difficult to integrate, socialize and be accepted,” Sbayi said. “I’ve lived places like Texas where there is a nice rainbow of colors and people are more adapted to new cultures.”
Jenan Jondy, outreach coordinator for the Islamic Center of Maine disagrees.
“My husband and I had the choice to move here or Florida,” she said. “I took a walk around town, dressed like this in the hijab, because it’s a small town and you never know. I came back and told my husband that this is where I wanted to live.”
Both Abdullahi and Boubacar agreed praying in public or on campus has not been a problem for them.
“Honestly, being black is more of an issue in Maine,” said Abdullahi, who is originally from Somalia.
Boubacar, originally from Niger, agreed, adding, “People feel distant, but I get more crazy questions about Africa than Islam. It’s actually a bigger deal to talk about the weather, you have to buy some big clothes here.”
All three students agreed fear caused by misunderstanding and ignorance was the root of the problem. As active members of the MSA, they work to spread knowledge about what Islam means to them.
Last April, the group sponsored an Islamic Awareness Week with activities and speakers every day. Throughout the year, the MSA works to address hot topics head on and welcomes questions from curious students.
“I believe my faith is strengthened when I know more about other religions. People don’t have to agree or follow what I do. Just respect and accept me for the way I am,” Abdullahi said.
Sbayi has learned, however, that sometimes the dialogue might not go too far.
“People come out of nowhere, and you can tell they are looking for a Muslim, looking for a fight. Their mind is already made up, and they are just trying to catch you in a bad position,” she said.
The Islamic Center of Maine is open to visitors every day. Jondy says a few people come to visit every week and the Center is ready and willing to answer questions about praying, etiquette and the community. Calling or e-mailing ahead of time is not required, but it is a house of worship, so respectful clothing and demeanor is requested.
“A good time to come is our monthly potluck,” Jondy said. “We have members from India, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Ghana, Somalia and Pakistan, as well as Americans and Canadians, so our food is the best in town.”
The Islamic Center of Maine is the only freestanding mosque in Maine and as such would appear a natural target for negative feelings, but Jondy reports they have been experiencing anything but.
“We have been getting e-mails every day. An outpouring of support from churches, neighbors and just random people writing to say they don’t accept racism and hate. We can’t look at a minority and judge the whole of America or of Christianity,” Jondy said.
“Honestly, in my 36 years as a Muslim, and sometimes praying in public, I’m used to some people saying something. I’m not going to keep looking over my shoulder. I focus on the positive,” she said.