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Religious seminar goes off script(ure): Presentation on Islam becomes contentious

An introductory seminar on Islam--billed as an opportunity for education and establishing communication--veered off script Friday as attendees confronted the speakers on a number of contentious religious subjects.

Rashed Ferdous (left), Christina Ferdous and John Emery, representing the Islamic Resource Group, pose after the end of their presentation "Islam and Muslims: Beyond Stereotypes, A Dialogue." While Rashed Ferdous and Emery were the primary speakers, Christina Ferdous also offered insights into the faith for non-believers. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
Rashed Ferdous (left), Christina Ferdous and John Emery, representing the Islamic Resource Group, pose after the end of their presentation "Islam and Muslims: Beyond Stereotypes, A Dialogue." While Rashed Ferdous and Emery were the primary speakers, Christina Ferdous also offered insights into the faith for non-believers. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
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An introductory seminar on Islam-billed as an opportunity for education and establishing communication-veered off script Friday as attendees confronted the speakers on a number of contentious religious subjects.

Central Lakes College hosted "Islam and Muslims: Beyond Stereotypes," a dialogue put on by two speakers, Rashed Ferdous and John Emery, representatives of the Islamic Resource Group. The organization is a Muslim advocacy volunteer organization based in St. Anthony, intended to build understanding between Muslims and the greater Minnesota community. Roughly 30 people attended the seminar in the E354.

Both Ferdous and Emery spoke to the audience as followers of Islam.

Ferdous, president of the Islamic Resource Group and an information technology specialist out of St. Paul, came to the United States as an immigrant from Bangladesh. While a university student, he met his wife, Christina, originally of Deerwood.

John Emery had a Catholic upbringing in Apple Valley, before joining the military in the mid-'90s and embarking on a nine-year career as an Arabic translator and interrogator in North Africa, the Persian Gulf and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He is an American convert of Islam.

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The contrast between the two-both in terms of appearance, culture and background-served to emphasize the universality of Islam beyond stereotypes, as well as what the speakers deemed the universal values of humanity such as justice, love and compassion. Both Emery and Ferdous cited their differences as an example of the diversity that Islam, the world's second largest religion, features among its 1.8 billion adherents.

"Muslims are a bit overrepresented in the news media. Even in Minnesota, most Muslims look very different than Rashed because they're Somalis," Emery told the audience. "So we try to agitate those stereotypes we might have. I just try to go out and bridge those gaps."

Ferdous said from the onset that no topic, however controversial, was off-limits. Both speakers took turns explaining basic aspects of Islam, touching upon its Middle Eastern origins in the sixth century and explanations for core tenets of the faith, such as the five pillars of Islam. They also pointed out 85 percent of Muslims are neither Middle Eastern nor speak Arabic.

From there, Ferdous and Emery delved into the history of the religion in the United States, dating back to the 1700s, often with slaves, of whom one-third were reportedly Muslim. The oldest mosque in the nation resides in Ross, N.D., lasting evidence of Turkish, Syrian and Lebanese communities that immigrated into the Upper Midwest, many to establish homesteads of their own but also to fill a growing need for blue-collar factory jobs. Today, a little over 100,000 Muslims live in Minnesota, compared to the 3.3 million followers of the faith nationwide.

Ferdous noted friction between Muslim communities and their neighbors often arises out of misunderstanding, of which the worst cases are amplified by media coverage, though this hardly reflects the everyday interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Minnesota.

"Muslims have been here a long time. What you see in the news-that's an exception, that's what is considered newsworthy," Ferdous said. "It doesn't represent all of us. Most of the time these issues arise between the person, the Muslim and a misunderstanding with employers."

The speakers quickly abandoned their structured lecture in favor of a forum discussion when it became apparent some audience members wanted to explore-and in some cases, dispute-aspects of the faith not covered by the presentation. The conflicting assertions of those present, which at many points were dismissed as inaccurate or false, posed the question of what, if anything, can be taken on good faith in a technological world overflowing with information.

Among these topics, but not limited to, were hotly contested debates over:

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• The definition of jihad-some members of the audience contended Jihad encapsulates the killing of infidels as, they said, is stipulated by the Quran. The speakers refuted this and said that Muslims regard jihad as "struggle," or any act for the greater good that includes holy war, but also pertains to acts of service and charity.

• The definition of Sharia-some members of the audience argued Muslims have and are attempting to impose a form of strict, oppressive Islamic law (in the mold of Saudi Arabia) in any area they form a sizable majority. The speakers rejected this claim and argued only two nations, Saudi Arabia and Iran, purport to follow Sharia, and Muslims are taught to honor the laws of their neighbors, as they do in Sweden, France and the United States.

• The influx of Muslim refugees into Europe and the supposed "takeover" of the continent.

• Differing interpretations of Quranic verses that purportedly expressed the "cursing" of non-Muslims.

• The authenticity of Quranic verses purportedly teaching Muslims to submit to the laws of their countries until they're in the position to impose Sharia.

• The accuracy or lack thereof in non-Arabic translations of the Quran-some members argued Muslims are unable to fully understand their own religion because of the language gap presented to non-Arabic-speaking Muslim majority. The speakers agreed this presents some issues, though it mirrors similar concerns raised by Christians regarding translations of the New Testament from Greek and Aramaic, or Jews regarding the translations of the Talmud from ancient Hebrew.

• Expressed opposition to the position that "God" and "Allah" (Arabic for "God") are referring to the same deity.

• The culpability of the peaceful Muslim majority in comparison to violent, fanatical sects like the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and the Taliban.

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Through it all, Ferdous emphasized Islam, like many religions, portrays itself as the one true path and the Quran, much like the Holy Bible, is a complex text subject of countless interpretations over the centuries-an issue, he noted, worsened when people take one or two verses out of context and use them to paint the religion in broad strokes.

"As anyone who speaks or understands another language beside English knows, it's very difficult to translate from one language to another," Ferdous said. "Meanings are lost, this and that is missing, so it's important to refer to scholarship."

Understanding differs among believers and, on top of that, Ferdous said, many of the arguments raised in the dialogue touched upon subjects still debated internally by Islamic scholars, let alone outside the faith.

Isaiah Oleson, a resident of Brainerd, said while he didn't want the seminar to become confrontational, it represented a healthy debate and an opportunity for growth for everyone involved.

"I didn't think there should have been as many questions because I wanted (the speakers) to get through their slides and hear their side of it," Oleson said. "But, I'm glad there were questions because it sparked debate. Even if people don't agree with the debate, debate is good and a good way to get ideas across."

Linda Donahue, a resident of Little Falls, was among audience members who questioned the speakers on a number of theological points during the dialogue. While she said she believed most Muslims are good people, she said she attended the seminar with the intention to discuss relevant issues with the faith and how these issues may threaten the Western world.

"We got a problem with stuff escalating in this United States with the (Muslims) that are bad," Donahue said. "(Ferdous) didn't answer my question what are we going to do about that-I wanted to know his thoughts. Facts are funny things. The fact is 9/11 happened. San Bernadino, Fort Hood-I don't need to go down the list. These things are happening."

After the event, Ferdous and Emery expressed optimism. They said the contentious nature of the dialogue is a reflection of the divisive atmosphere we find in many of our current conversations, whether its religion, politics or even pop culture.

For Ferdous, backlash by established communities against newcomers is a phenomenon well-documented throughout American history, whether it's the struggle of Catholics or Jews to be accepted by the Protestant majority or the battle for inclusion waged by immigrants of Irish, Hispanic or African descent through the years.

"I'm a firm believer in a hopeful future," Ferdous said. "As a country, the dialogues, the ideas and the discussions about Islam today that seem negative or are negative-this has happened to people long before Muslims," Ferdous said. "This is the greatest nation and country on earth. No other nation was able to turn around that history."

"This is simply the most recent iteration of this whole process," Emery added. "When we read about immigration in the past, we know America always benefits. We always take the best these communities have to offer and make America better for everyone."

The Islamic Resource Group has future seminars regarding the faith scheduled for Jan. 13 and March 5 at Central Lakes College, as well as a potential event at a still-to-be-determined date in February. People interested in learning more about Islam are invited to attend any of these events.

Rashed Ferdous delves into the basics of the Islamic faith at a seminar Friday hosted by Central Lakes College. He touched upon the history of the faith, its core tenets and its place in the annals of Minnesota's past. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
Rashed Ferdous delves into the basics of the Islamic faith at a seminar Friday hosted by Central Lakes College. He touched upon the history of the faith, its core tenets and its place in the annals of Minnesota's past. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

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