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Article updated: 5/19/2013 6:41 PM

Elgin event asks: "Who Is My Muslim Neighbor?"

By Tara García Mathewson

Jacki Bakker, of Carpentersville, wanted to learn more about Islam, which is her daughter-in-law's religion and now her son's. Lyn Humbrack, a member of Elgin's First Congregational Church, has heard plenty of stereotypes about Muslims on TV but wanted to know the facts.

An event held Sunday at Elgin Community College brought a roomful of people earnestly searching for answers about the religion nearly one in four people on the planet claim as their own. "Who Is My Muslim Neighbor?" was organized by the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders and the Elgin Human Relations Commission.

The goal was to foster tolerance by broadening the community's understanding of Islam.

"We need to move way from stereotypes that have been assigned to groups in our community," said Elgin Mayor David Kaptain at the beginning of the event. He challenged local Muslims to branch out and involve themselves in wider community events and he commended the religious leaders for working together and setting an example for others.

In an overview of Islam and its followers, Gerald Hankerson, outreach coordinator for the Council on American Islamic Relations, said Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world. He pointed to population research that shows most Muslims living in the United States are African Americans or South Asians, while the vast majority of Arab-Americans are Christian. He stressed the idea that Islam is a religion of peace.

Miriam Fadel, a teacher at Elgin Academy, spoke about influential women in Islamic history, drawing a distinction between religion and culture when it comes to repression. The current prime ministers of Bangladesh and Mali are Muslim, as is the president of Kosovo, Fadel said, adding that the oldest continually operating institution of higher learning on the planet was founded by a Muslim woman.

"There's this misconception that women are oppressed by the religion and that is absolutely not true," Fadel said.

In smaller groups, attendees like Bakker and Humbrack had the chance to learn more about Islam from representatives of the Institute of Islamic Education, a school in Elgin that draws Islamic scholars from across the country. Ahsan Syed, a graduate of Bartlett High School and student at IIE, responded to questions about how to engage Muslims and stop cycles of discrimination.

"It's true that if you want to get to know something you have to get to know the people," Syed said. "Any Muslim you know, knowing them at the personal level is a good place to start."

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