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Muslim open house in Oakland honors differences

Friday, September 12, 2003

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

After spending several hours last night at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh's open house, Brandon Whitfield and his four college classmates were clearly embarrassed by their lack of knowledge of the religion.

It's early in the semester, and their class on Faith, Religion and Society at Seton Hill University hasn't yet covered much ground.

The five agreed, however, that when they woke up on the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, they could have summed up their impressions in one word: terrorist.

After getting permission to skip baseball practice, however, to fulfill a class requirement, the students sampled a variety of food, sat in on a roundtable discussion involving Muslims and non-Muslims, heard the call to prayer and observed the Sa'laat, or worship.

"After today, everything is so different," said Whitfield, 18, of the West End. "There were so many details ... it's like we finally understood that we're all equal."

They learned that Muslims don't only worship the Prophet Muhammad; Jesus, too, is one of their prophets. And they learned why everyone removes their shoes before entering the prayer area -- "so as not to soil the rugs and carpets," a brochure explained.

"Now everything's different for us," said Cory Weibel, 18, of Freeport.

That is exactly what the members of the Islamic Center wanted.

"Sept. 11 brought to the surface a lot of latent prejudices that were always there -- it was an excuse to come to the surface," said Dahlia Mogahed, the Islamic Center's outreach program director. "But when they come up to the surface, they can be dealt with."

Tyler Anderson, 19, of Greensburg, wandered away from the group and spent several minutes talking to one of the center's members. Upon his return, he told his friends that Muslims worshipped on Friday afternoons.

"But you were over there for a long time," someone told Anderson. "That's all you talked about?"

"We were just talking," he laughed.

And that seemed to be part of the Islamic Center's strategy -- simply to talk with the visitors, about faith or politics or basic everyday life. It was difficult to cross from one side of the prayer area to the other without conversing with a half-dozen Muslims, all eager to teach a little bit about their religion.

At an open house during the summer, Mogahed met a woman who was collecting as much literature as she could. The woman, a Christian, said she was taking what she learned back to her church. "The people who really need to be here don't really come," Mogahed said. "But there are ambassadors."


Lori Shontz can be reached at lshontz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.

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