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Pacific University speaker tries to demystify the people and their religion

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Harris Zafar talked about how distorted, anti-Muslim comments have moved from uninformed and sometimes kooky online or television commentators to politicians, including (left, top) Ben Carson, President-elect Donald Trumps nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who once said Muslims who embrace American values and Islamic law must be schizophrenic.If you’re one of those people who worries about Muslims with destructive intentions, look out for Harris Zafar.

He’s a Muslim and he’s got a mission that he plans to carry out at Washington Square Mall Thursday.

His weapons: coffee, cake and friendly conversation. His goal: destroying people’s fear, suspicion and negative stereotypes of Muslims.

“We can’t wait for those who don’t know us to say ‘I want to get to know you,’” said Zafar, who spoke to more than 60 people Monday night at Pacific University's Forest Grove campus in a talk co-sponsored by the school's Center for Gender Equity, Center for Peace and Spirituality and McCall Center for Policy Innovation.

According to a 2014 Pew Research poll, 60 percent of Americans don’t know any Muslims — or at least think they don’t, said Zafar, a humorous, self-deprecating dad who was born in Chicago to parents who emigrated from Pakistan.

But America’s 3.3 million Muslims are so racially, ethnically and professionally diverse, many of that 60 percent probably do know Muslims but don’t realize it, he said.

Zafar has lived in Portland for 30 years. He attends a southwest Portland mosque and has written columns for national newspapers, sparred with Bill O'Reilly on FOX News, given a TED talk and written a book in his quest to help Americans understand Muslims.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Harris Zafar said its not religion that divides people but rather an innate human tendency to separate ourselves in ways that help us feel superior.His Washington Square gig won’t be the first time Muslims have attempted to break through Americans’ fear of Muslims. Last summer, a group of young male Muslims traveled around the country and stationed themselves in public places, each holding a sign saying, “I Am a Muslim — Ask Me Anything” (video clips available online).

And at Pacific University last spring, the newly formed Muslim Student Association set up a booth in the University Center inviting students to stop and talk. People seem to respond well to such efforts (see sidebar).

The outreach is needed, Zafar said, to counteract real, horrifying incidents that give Muslims and their religion — Islam — a bad name. Most of these incidents happen in countries with leaders who interpret the Quran in a strict, misguided, destructive way: sentencing rape victims to prison for adultery, sentencing former Muslims to death when they convert to Christianity, calling for the destruction of churches, applauding terrorist attacks.

Zafar and his fellow Muslims in Portland are appalled by such actions and also exasperated by news reports — particularly on FOX News — that lump all Muslims together into a monolithic “they” or “them” and use the words “jihadist,” “Islamist” and “Muslim” interchangeably.

In fact, there are many different Muslim sects, just as there are many different denominations in Christianity — from extreme, conservative sects to peaceful, progressive sects such as Zafar’s Ahmadiyya sect.

After the election of Donald Trump as America's next president, for example, the Ahmadiyya spiritual leader sent a message reminding the sect’s American members that “we are peaceful, law-abiding citizens so we are not going to take to the streets,” Zafar said. Instead, they were instructed to wait and see what Trump will do. If he does anything unjust or takes away anyone’s rights, they will fight such actions through the legal system.

Islam discourages demonstrations, Zafar said, because they often turn negative. Even when arguing on a personal level, he said, Islam exhorts people to argue in a positive way that will bring people together rather than drive them apart.

When the talk ended, a young woman approached to tell him about people who criticized outreach efforts by her and her friends and Zafar referred to a principle he’s tried to live by: "Seek to understand before you seek to be understood." Truly understanding another person can help break down barriers, he said.

After the election, “that’s how I started to realize in the heartland of the U.S., we didn’t hear what they were saying. Once I understand their side, I can feel sympathy,” he said. And that can sometimes change the conversation.

Reaching across the divide

Martha Rampton said her Pacific University students are always “amazed” at the loving, friendly welcome they get when they visit a mosque as part of Rampton’s “History of Islam” class. Most say they’ve never been to a mosque before and know no Muslims.

The education system needs to do more to demystify Islam and other religions, said Rampton. Pacific has only one class on Islam and students in high school or middle school usually have no exposure to the religion, she said.

Pacific chaplain Chuck Currie, director of the Center of Peace and Spirituality, said that’s starting to change in Portland, where public schools now teach a comparative religion class, focusing on Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Zafar said he has already been heartened by the many total strangers who reached out to his mosque after the election, saying “How can I be an ally?”

And the audience at his Pacific talk was clearly looking for ways to do the same.

“I really don’t want to be an ‘ignorant white person,’” said one woman, who acknowledged not knowing much about Islam. Others shared her desire to learn more about the Muslim perspective.

In the news these days, “you hear so much ‘about’ Muslims but don’t hear much ‘from’ Muslims,” said Forest Grove resident Brad Taylor.

Rogelio Martinez, assistant principal at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School, said he has only one Muslim friend.

“Hopefully,” Zafar said, “by the end of this talk, you’ll have two.”

A Mall and a Night Visitor

Harris Zafar will b sitting at a table outside Dick's Sporting Goods in the Washington Square Mall in Tigard with free coffee and cake at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8. Feel free to stop by and chat. "We don't have to talk about Islam," Zafar said.

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