Have you seen the NPR story about a one-man campaign by a Muslim American Marine to fight Islamophobia? He is traveling the country to dispel misconceptions about Muslims.
For more than 20 years, Cincinnati’s Shakila Ahmad has been doing much the same. As the first female president of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati (ICGC), she plays a vital role in helping area residents understand what the Muslim faith is – and is not.
Asked if she is busier than usual these post-election days, Ahmad pauses. “Busy is one word,” she says. “There are certainly a lot of things to be thinking about, some of them concerning. The needs for interfaith understanding, education and collective work have increased, definitely.”
Interfaith understanding, education and collective work are what Ahmad is all about. She firmly believes that encouraging learning and respect for others is vital to everyone’s well-being. She was a founding member of Mothers Against Violence, an effort to educate people, especially Muslim youth, about identifying and preventing bullying.
ICGC has offered tours and open houses for the community since its opening in 1995. Lately the Center has expanded its outreach. Its “Know Your Neighbor” program, Ahmad explains, “goes beyond welcoming people of all or no faith and giving them a tour. We also provide time and some tips to build relationships with others. It’s very informal. People have a chance to ask questions and then meet others over a little friendly tea time with refreshments.” Know Your Neighbor sessions are held monthly.
“We felt the need to understand, to connect so that we can try to be an environment, a country, that has an understanding of who is an American,” she says.
A recent event welcomed more than 600 adults and children and concluded with attendees linking arms in a circle around the Center. Among the crowd was Rozy Park, a member of First Unitarian Church. She found it moving to respectfully observe the prayer time, the remarks of the Imam and the questions and answers about what Muslims believe.
“I found the whole experience surprisingly emotional,” Park says, “and I was thrilled to see how many people turned out. I’m so proud of Cincinnati and especially West Chester and Butler County. The people at the Center could not have been more welcoming.”
Park’s reaction was typical, says Ahmad. She notes that a December 2015 survey of the local Cincinnati Muslim community “reaffirms that Muslim Americans have the same needs and concerns as other Americans, and want to build relationships with their neighbors. Even the most recent refugees are working to assimilate.”
Now More than Ever
The need to know our neighbors has never been more critical, Ahmad stresses: “Despite the concerns and fears we may feel, we cannot let that immobilize us in taking action to better understand who our neighbors are and building common ground. We must use whatever vehicles we can find – inviting others to your faith community to speak and get to know each other or beginning a relationship with a neighbor who is different from you.”