Interfaith meeting with Muslims in Pittsburgh
By J.D. Prose
Beaver County Times
March 31, 2017 – BEAVER — If any two things bring Beaver Countians together, it’s food and religion, and Center Township resident Toni Ashfaq will incorporate both to educate residents about Islam during events in Beaver.
“There are a lot of misunderstandings, a lot of false information floating around,” said Ashfaq, a Muslim and the organizer of two Spread Hummus, Not Hate: Meet Your Muslim Neighbor gatherings Wednesday and Saturday at Beaver Area Memorial Library. “We just want people to meet us and see that we’re just like everybody else.”
A Wisconsin native and convert from Catholicism, Ashfaq said she and two friends — Julia Chaney, a Christian, and fellow Muslim Dr. Raniah Khairy, an OB/GYN specialist at Heritage Valley Beaver hospital in Brighton Township — began brainstorming ideas “just to kind of build bridges and promote understanding” because of the “current political climate.”
That brainstorming has resulted in the Spread Hummus, Not Hate gatherings at the library from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Ashfaq said they got the idea after learning of a group in Australia doing meetings.
“We thought it was a pretty catchy title,” Ashfaq said with a laugh. Just one gathering was initially planned, but after receiving an “overwhelming” response, she said a second one was added.
Islam has been distorted by politicians and certain media, she said, not naming anyone specifically. Regardless, Ashfaq said Muslims are “not in denial” about Muslims committing violence, but the media too often focuses solely on Islam.
“People get the wrong idea that those people represent the whole faith, and they don’t,” Ashfaq said, recalling a recent conversation in which she told a woman that equating terrorists with Islam would be akin to equating the Ku Klux Klan with Christianity.
Critics have accused President Donald Trump of fanning anti-Muslim sentiments with his proposed immigration ban, since halted by courts, that targeted Muslim-majority countries. He has argued that the ban is necessary to make sure terrorists are not entering the United States as refugees.
Ashfaq said she has not experienced any overt discrimination, but has seen an increase in people’s curiosity about Islam and Muslims.
“People are really starting to ask questions,” she said. “They are really wanting to understand.”
Most questions, Ashfaq said, concern sharia, Islamic canonical law; jihad, an Arabic word meaning “struggle,” but which has taken on the connotation of “holy war”; the treatment of women in Islamic societies; and how some Muslim women dress in public, which can include wearing a hijab that covers the head and chest. Those aspects of Islam, including its basic beliefs and similarities with Christianity, and a question-and-answer session will be on the agenda Wednesday and Saturday.
Ashfaq said she and her friends are hoping the events raise enough interest that others might want to organize similar gatherings to promote interfaith relationships and understanding.
“If you see somebody face-to-face, it’s harder to hate them,” she said.