Teachers get lessons on Islam and Arab world


(Original publication: March 20, 2005)

PURCHASE — The teachers were gathered at round tables, answering a quiz about the Jewish scripture, the New Testament and the Quran. They were asked to match the holy book with the quotations, which included references to Adam in the garden, Moses parting the sea and the immaculate conception of Mary. To the surprise of some, the correct match for all of the above was the Quran, the Islamic holy book.
“For most people, this quiz serves as a wake-up call,” said Audrey Shabbas, who led the workshop, “Teaching about the Arab World and Islam,” at Manhattanville College in Purchase yesterday. “When talking about Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we’re talking about connections, not just similarities.”

Shabbas’ organization, the Arab World and Islamic Resources, conducts workshops nationwide to help educators understand Arab culture and history, as well as Islamic faith, and to bring that knowledge into the classroom.

The workshop included discussions about geography, the different populations of Muslims, and the connections between Arabs and Muslims and the United States.

Many of the 21 teachers who participated were history teachers, but others taught elementary school or art and came to the workshop to learn more about the traditions of the Muslim and Arab students in their schools.

Theresa Kubasak, who teaches second grade at a Manhattan school, said she wanted to learn more about her students’ backgrounds.

“It validates the kids’ cultures who are sitting in my classroom,” she said. “I have all kinds of kids who have experienced war and racism. They deserve to have a teacher who understands their culture.”

Louise Kuklis, an economics and global studies teacher at Edgemont High School, wanted to tackle her own assumptions and misconceptions.

“Ever since Sept. 11,” she said, “kids have had so many questions. They’re always wondering what is this religion that terrorism comes from. I’m trying to give them awareness of Muslim society.”

The American Muslim Women’s Association, based in Briarcliff Manor, sponsored the second annual workshop because members felt Islamic and Arab studies were missing from their own children’s education in Westchester schools.

Association President Zena Mikdadi said her son was often asked to speak about the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to fellow students at Dobbs Ferry High School.

Ola Nosseir, a native of Egypt, had the same feeling in her sons’ classrooms.

“We hope they (the teachers) go back and impart the knowledge to their students and feel more confident about teaching,” she said. “You can’t teach if you don’t know.”

Muslims call for tsunami aid

(Original publication: January 18, 2005)

MOUNT VERNON — Muslim leaders who gathered to pray last night for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami sounded what may become a familiar theme: Financial aid to South Asia will have to be continued for long after the disaster fades from headlines.
“It may take 20 or 30 years of relief efforts to get these communities established,” said Abdus-Salaam Musa, an official with INCA Relief, a Muslim humanitarian group that has sent workers and supplies to several of the affected countries.

The American Muslim Women’s Association, a Westchester-based group, organized last night’s hastily planned service at the Westchester Muslim Center to spur Muslims to reflect on the meaning of the tsunami — and to plant the seed that donations will be necessary for years.

“A catastrophe like this has to wake us up,” said Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan of Pleasantville, chairwoman of the American Muslim Women’s Association. “Have we changed our lives in any way since the tsunami happened or have we gone back to our old ways? It has shown us that life is so precious, so short, it can be gone in a blink of an eye.”

Yasser El-Safadi, president of the Thornwood-based Upper Westchester Muslim Society, said that the tsunami should be a wake-up call to individuals and nations.

“If you are the same before and after, you have missed something important,” he said.

The tsunami is very much a Muslim tragedy, as the most devastated nation is Indonesia, home to more Muslims than any other nation. About 185 million of the country’s 220 million people are Muslim.

Indonesia lost more than 115,000 people. Overall, the tsunami killed 163,000 people in 11 countries.

Many regions of Indonesia are known to be very religious. Despite the chaos caused by the tsunami, an estimated 200,000 Indonesians are this week making the hajj, the great Muslim pilgrimage through the holy cities of Medina and Mecca.

Dr. Shafi Bezar, chairman of the Westchester Muslim Center, which has raised $10,000 in donations so far, said that people of all faiths should find common ground in aiding survivors of the disaster.

“This is a human tragedy,” he said.

Several speakers said that a great challenge would be to keep South Asia in the news as the months pass, so that people continue to write checks.

“We cannot forget our brothers and sisters throughout the world who have been affected by this for many years to come, not just the foreseeable future,” said Ola Nosseir of Briarcliff Manor, communications director for the American Muslim Women’s Association.

The American Muslim Women’s Association, in conjunction with the Center for Jewish-Christian-Muslim Understanding, is sponsoring an interfaith forum about the tsunami on Jan. 30, at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center, 701 N. Broadway, Sleepy Hollow. The program will be from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. and will cost $10. For information, call 914-591-8194.

Restoring faith in Islam

(Original publication: September 19, 2004)

DOBBS FERRY — Until three years ago, Zena Mikdadi was a housewife who had given up a career as a civil engineer to raise three children. Life revolved around taking the children to school and baseball practice, hosting dinner parties and taking part in PTA meetings.

Then Sept. 11, 2001, happened.

As images of the terror attacks filled television screens, networks and newspapers identified the perpetrators as Islamic terrorists who had vowed vengeance against America. Islam was in the eye of the storm and it was being seen as a religion of violence.

“Watching the news day in and day out, the way they were representing Islam, it was hurting us,” said Mikdadi, 45, of Dobbs Ferry, whose Palestinian origins and Islamic faith had always been private matters. “I thought ‘What can I do to dispel the myth?’ ”

That was three years ago. Today, Mikdadi is part of the American Muslim Women’s Association, a committed group that was brought into the public sphere by their shared anguish at the way Islam was being perceived.

“Since 9/11, a large part of our community got energized,” said Sunera Rahman, 33, an environmental scientist. “It was a wake-up call. I joined AMWA because I wanted to make a difference.”

This month, AMWA celebrates its second anniversary with a dinner today at the Scarsdale Congregational Church. Articles by women from Jordan, Egypt, Senegal, Afghanistan, Pakistan and by Palestinian women will be auctioned and the money used to fund AMWA’s work. Discussions will also be held about women in Islam.

In their work, AMWA members — housewives, doctors, accountants, environmentalists and biologists — visit schools, churches, clubs and classrooms to tell people that Islam is a progressive religion, committed to peace and women’s rights. They also talk about the commonality between Islam and Christianity.

AMWA does not talk about terrorism, telling the audience that the issue is political, not religious, and they do not wish to discuss it.

The going isn’t always easy. Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan, AMWA’s chairperson and a plastic surgeon, said she is frequently challenged during her presentations. If Islam respects women’s rights, people ask, then why aren’t women in Saudi Arabia allowed to drive, or why do they have to wear a veil?

“They confuse the religion of Islam with the culture of Saudi Arabia,” said Hassan who points out that women rode camels, the prevailing mode of transport during the time of the Prophet Mohammed, and that women were successful businesswomen and preachers. In recent times, Benazir Bhutto served as prime minister of Pakistan, Megawati Sukarnoputri is president of Indonesia and Khaleda Zia is prime minister of Bangladesh.

In her talks, Mikdadi dispels what she calls the seven myths about Islam: that women can’t drive, are forced to cover themselves, can’t divorce or choose their own husband, don’t have a right of inheritance, to education or to a career. Muslim women were given the right to divorce, own property, and to an education and career at a time when most women were chattel to their men and could not inherit or own property, she said. If some rights have been taken away, it’s because those countries are patriarchal societies in which women have traditionally been subservient, not because Islam says so.

“If you are dealing with an illiterate, submissive population, it is easy to impose your will,” especially if you invoke religion and take the teachings out of context, said Rahman, a Somers resident from Bangladesh.

Thousands of people in Westchester are hearing its message, AMWA said. Last year, the Ursuline School in New Rochelle invited Hassan to speak to their students after a teacher noticed a few girls express anger toward Muslim girls wearing head scarves.

During the past two years, invitations for AMWA to speak have grown, to up to four a week. The members have also been honored by community groups and inter-faith organizations. “If we didn’t touch some people’s heart, we wouldn’t get more invitations to speak,” said Rahman.

Reach Hema Easley at heasley@thejournalnews.com or 914-696-8229.Reach Hema Easley at heasley@thejournalnews.com or 914-696-8229.