Muslims Eager for Ramadan to Begin; They Look to the Holy Month as Way to Overcome Negative Views of Their Faith

Article excerpt

Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY, The Times-Union

Muslim Hope Barbari has a simple message for non-Muslims on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan: We do not condone violence.

"They need to sit down and open their minds and give Muslim people the chance to dispel the misnomers," said Barbari, 30, a Jacksonville resident and school teacher and a Muslim since age 6, when her mother converted to the faith.

"There is nothing to fear about this religion," she said. "We're not monsters, we're not terrorists."

With Ramadan beginning tonight or Saturday -- depending on when the first new moon of the Muslim lunar calendar is sighted -- that's a message Muslims such as Barbari, local religious leaders and the Council on American-Islamic Relations are trying hard to spread.

Ramadan is a month of fasting, prayer, intense Scripture reading, charity and community outreach, and as such makes almost an ideal vehicle for promoting Islam, Muslims say.

The timing of Ramadan also is ideal given the climate of fear Muslims feel and are accused of instilling.

A recent poll by the Council on American-Islamic Relations quantified those feelings, with one in four Americans responding that they hold a negative view of Muslims and Islam. Among the views held by that 25 percent of Americans is that Islam teaches hatred and promotes violence, and that Muslims place a lower value on life.

Exacerbated by reports of decapitations and bombings in Iraq and the attack on a school in Russia, some say the mood is almost as bleak as it was after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Atlaf Ali, director of the Florida council, said that climate has existed palpably "for the past several months."

Muslims were "very, very depressed when we saw what happened to our fellow Americans" in Iraq "and saw it was done by Muslims," said Ali, who is based in Miami. "We need something that will boost our spirits -- how much more can we take?"

That boost, he said, will be provided by Ramadan, the month during which Muslims believe the Holy Quran was received by the prophet Muhammad from God.

"Right now Muslims are kind of on the down side and this Ramadan will uplift their spirits," Ali said.

Ramadan also could allay fears and prejudice in the non-Muslim community if mosques use the month as an occasion to open their doors to the public, Ali said.

The council has launched "Sharing Ramadan," a campaign to encourage Islamic centers and mosques nationwide to host dinner receptions and open houses. So far, about a dozen of about 100 Islamic centers in Florida have signed on to "dispel stereotypes" by participating in the campaign, spokesman Ahmed Bedier said.

"They're disturbed by the poll results," Bedier said. "And in the past year, we've seen more and more anger and hatred towards Muslims."

Zaid Malik, imam at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida, said he embraced the council's campaign as a way to show the Jacksonville community that Muslims condemn terrorism and are just normal, hard-working people. …