Understanding Islam event held at Columbia Museum of Art

The topic of discussion was a potentially fiery one, but the theme of Sunday night’s conversation at the Columbia Museum of Art was peace and unity.

With the Muslim holy month of Ramadan under way, the museum hosted an event called “Dinner and Dialogue: Understanding Islam.” It began with a panel discussion featuring Dr. Akif Aydin of the Atlantic Institute Columbia, Imam Omar Shaheed of Columbia’s Masjid as-Salaam, and Dr. Noah Gardiner, a University of South Carolina assistant professor of religion specializing in Islamic thought and culture.

A crowd of around 100 gathered to listen as the panel focused on what they described as misunderstandings and false stereotypes regarding Islam and on the things Muslims have in common with those of other religions, particularly Christians and Jews.
“We do not worship Muhammad,” said Shaheed, a former Christian who converted to Islam as an adult. “We worship Allah, the one God, and Allah is the God for all people. We pray like you pray.”

All three panelists said Islam is a religion of peace, and drew a distinction between religion and culture. “Culture and religion are two separate things, but most of the cultures [in Muslim-majority countries] are somehow confused with religion or Islam,” Aydin said. “Most of the things that we hear in the name of Islam are not part of the religion. It is part of that particular culture presented to us as religion.”

Shaheed compared Muslim terrorists and extremists to those who have used other religions for their own ends.
“You know who terrorized the black community? The ‘Christian’ Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,” he said. “They claimed to be following Jesus Christ.” Shaheed referred to Christianity as “A beautiful religion that was hijacked because of some wrong-minded people” in the case of the Klan.

Shaheed went on to say “There are some who have hijacked Islam. It’s against Islam to commit suicide. So where do suicide bombers come from? Do you believe Islam would preach that? If you do, you’ve got to believe what the Klan was saying about Christianity.”
That drew the night’s only spontaneous outburst of cheers and applause from the crowd.

The panel (L-R) Dr. Noah Gardiner, Imam Omar Shaheed and Dr. Akif Aydin. (Allen Wallace Photo)

The three also addressed fear and distrust of Muslims. “The United States is one of the best places to live Islam, because of its principles,” Aydin said. “There’s no need to change anything in the United States, but some are trying to create fear and anxiety among the non-Muslims.”

Gardiner agreed, adding “’Islamophobia’ is not a term I like very much. I prefer the term ‘anti-Muslim bigotry.’ Like any kind of bigotry, it has to be fought patiently and slowly with education.”
The panel was followed a dinner (after sunset, in observance of the daytime fasting required of Muslims during Ramadan) from local restaurants featuring food from around the Islamic world.