A community united
MSU, E.L. communities come together to promote understanding after Sept. 11 Quran burning
Born and raised in East Lansing, Asmaa Abdel-Azim grew up like any other Muslim child. And she grew up in an environment she found supportive and accepting.
Living in the shadow of the university, Abdel-Azim, now a biosystems engineering senior, was involved in MSU activities at an early age and never experienced problems in her relationships at school or within the community.
So, naturally, like countless others throughout East Lansing, she was shocked when word spread on Sept. 11 this year that the Muslim holy book, the Quran, had been burned at the steps of the Islamic Center of Greater Lansing — a place many Muslims in East Lansing consider a second home.
After Florida-based Pastor Terry Jones proposed “International Burn a Koran Day” more than two weeks ago, numerous incidents of Quran desecration occurred nationally, including the incident in East Lansing. The city of East Lansing responded within days by offering a $10,000 reward for any information about the event and the individual responsible turned himself in less than 24 hours later.
Rather than dwell on the incident, the Islamic Center has poured its efforts into a new campaign to educate and promote understanding within the community they call home. The campaign kicked off Wednesday evening when the center hosted a unity event with speakers from the university, the city of East Lansing and the Muslim community. More than 75 people came to celebrate the event.
“I hope that everybody can learn something new from this,” Asmaa Abdel-Azim said. “I hope it will be a milestone in showing that holding a unity event and being able to unite together is a positive thing.”
A community of global scale
Nestled beside the south edge of campus, the Islamic Center of Greater Lansing has been a part of East Lansing for more than 30 years, said Amr Abdel-Azim, the chairman of the board for the Islamic Center.
“It has been nothing but a great relationship with the people around us,” he said. “The churches next door open their doors and allow us to use their facilities and we do the same. It’s a great relationship. It tells you that people really appreciate being neighbors.”
Muslim relations are strongly grounded within the university as well, said Paulette Granberry Russell, director of the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives.
“My belief is that we have developed, and I think certainly since Sept. 11 (2001), and probably from the last six years or so, a better supportive network for Muslims in this community,” she said.
“Muslim students have been very responsible in terms of their efforts to educate the broader campus community about Islam. The Muslim Studies program also has been added in the classroom so there are understandings of the Muslim community through curriculum and through symposiums.”
Diversity is a major characteristic of day-to-day prayer and activities at the Islamic Center, Amr Abdel-Azim said.
“You’d be surprised how many nationalities you have here,” he said. “Six continents under one roof. What brings them here is their religion — Islam — right here in the heart of East Lansing. It’s the place where one of the leading universities in the world has enabled us to have a lot of visitors from all over the world.”
Islamophobia has dramatically increased nationally since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 (2001), propelling the spread of untruthful information and misconceptions about the Muslim community, said Spee Kosloff, a visiting assistant professor of psychology.
This misdirected fear is best changed with education, he said.
“(Intolerance) is not something we want to believe is the norm in our country,” he said. “But there’s a loud minority of people that act this way. There are 26 active hate groups in Michigan alone. Hate is something that continues to plague us.”
Kosloff said a way to move beyond this is to recognize that people of all religious backgrounds share a common humanity.
Sarah Midzalkowski, a chaplain for Episcopal ministry Canterbury MSU said understanding is key to moving forward. Midzalkowski said after living in the southern U.S., she was pleasantly surprised when she moved to East Lansing three years ago and found religious diversity. But, she said, religious tolerance isn’t enough.
“It’s no longer enough to tolerate one another,” she said. “You can tolerate something without engaging it. I think where the tolerance and diversity is present here, what hasn’t been seen is the understanding, relationship building and bridge building.”
An eye on the future
As Christians, Jews, Muslims, people of non-faith and people of other faiths gathered Wednesday in the Islamic Center, Amr Abdel-Azim greeted his neighbors and welcomed them to an event he said is one of many to come.
“The overwhelming response (after the Quran desecration) that the community has shown — whether they are neighbors, organizations, churches, the police department — has really showed us the fabric of this community,” he said. “That’s why we decided to celebrate this. We hope from this meeting that it becomes a dialogue that continues.”
He said the Islamic Center hopes to make the unity event a quarterly occasion.
East Lansing City Councilmember Nathan Triplett said the most important priority for the city is to welcome anyone who wants to live and work here.
“We have a thriving Muslim community and it’s a valued part of the community,” Triplett said. “Here in East Lansing, folks are a welcome addition to this community and it’s something we’ve always prided ourselves on.”
Asmaa Abdel-Azim said she hopes the event will build bridges for the future.
“By doing this, we’re providing a better foundation and background for anything that might come in the future,” she said. “My experience has been so positive and growing up here, I wouldn’t change a thing.”