Feature

RI Muslims Bridge the Cultural Divide

How an engaged group of volunteers is reaching out to the broader community to promote better cultural understanding

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If you look at the website of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement, you might assume it’s a non-profit with, at minimum, 20 staff members and millions of dollars at its budgetary disposal. From political advocacy, student associations and young women’s volunteer groups to children’s summer camps, mosque visits and a speakers bureau, RICMA has cornered seemingly every niche and utilized every technique for increasing the visibility and approachability of the Muslim community in Rhode Island. Behind this dizzying and strategic array of activities, however, lies a small, extremely dedicated band of volunteers, mostly women, who are striving to put a smiling, welcoming face on Rhode Island’s Muslim community – before others can assign a menacing one.

RICMA itself is led by a board of three volunteers. They do not have an office – in a pinch, they meet at the office of Adnan Adrian Wood-Smith, Brown’s Associate University Chaplain for the Muslim Community and RICMA’s president. He’s joined by Wendy Manchester Ibrahim, its vice president, and Aisha Manzoor, its secretary.

RICMA was founded by Mohamed Abdelrehman (also a founder of the Islamic School of Rhode Island in West Warwick) shortly after September 11, as a wave of hate crimes against Muslims rolled across the country. It took only a day for that wave to hit Rhode Island: On September 12, a Sikh man carrying a blunt ceremonial knife was arrested at the Providence train station for carrying a concealed weapon, based on what the ACLU later described as “classic racial profiling.” One month later, the FBI collected the records of URI students chosen by ethnicity and race and without their knowledge or consent, as part of a terrorism investigation. Dissent, from political protests to refusal to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, was intensely policed, and Muslims were cast as un-American and threatening. “All the Islamophobia and all the hatred,” says Aisha, inspired the formation of RICMA, whose outreach efforts at the time were focused on conveying two messages: “We’re just like you” and we have “no hidden agenda.”

The current political atmosphere under President Trump, including his administration’s attempts this year to prevent immigration to the U.S. from six predominately Muslim countries, has kicked off a frenzy of effort from RICMA and particularly from Aisha, whose name is sprinkled throughout RICMA’s website; she is the point person for more groups than she can count after only three years as secretary. She holds a masters degree in Islamic theology and jurisprudence; her husband, Imam Ikram ul Haq, holds a PhD in those subjects and is the imam at North Smithfield’s mosque, Masjid Al-Islam. She and her husband focus intensively on interfaith work. “The Muslim community tends to stay close knit,” she explains. “We stay in our own congregations and our own little circles. But post-election, we realized that we have to step out of our shells. Interfaith outreach work is the most important.”

To this end, RICMA staged an Open Mosque Day in late May involving four mosques around the state; non-Muslims were invited for an afternoon of refreshments, henna tattoos, informational pamphlets, free copies of the Quran and enthusiastic welcomes from members of the various congregations on hand to answer questions about their religious practice. The idea came from the United Kingdom, where the day was called “Visit My Mosque”; more than 150 mosques there participated this year, up from 20 in 2015, when the event began. Other interfaith initiatives from RICMA include a discussion group for Jewish and Muslim women, a chapter of the nationwide Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS) that meets monthly over a vegetarian potluck; the last discussion involved a comparison of alcohol’s role in Jewish ritual and Islam’s prohibition of it. A young women’s Rhode Island chapter of SOSS, for women ages 15 to 30, launched this past April.

Aside from outreach to non-Muslims, RICMA churns out regular programming for the Muslim community itself, including a weekly Islamic Studies series, a summer camp series for kids and other youth classes, an annual picnic and an annual Eid festival marking the end of Ramadan which includes, says Aisha, “a bounce house for the kids and barbecue.” Thanks to the relative lack of hierarchy (and staff), the organization operates flexibly, launching new initiatives as soon as interest and need appear.

These initiatives include a Muslim mothers’ group, which formed after “a few incidents within the Muslim community where mothers were feeling very alone and distant from everyone else,” says Aisha, who, like many mothers in the Muslim community, homeschools her three children. Aamina Ahmed helps organize this mothers’ group (or, as Aisha refers to it, Mommy Network); she got involved when Aisha reached out to her about a mutual friend dealing with postpartum depression. “Nobody knew about it,” Aamina says. “She didn’t tell anyone about it. A lot of times people brush aside postpartum depression and say it’s not a real thing.” Social and cultural stigma can dissuade women from seeking psychological help, and the smallness and relative insularity of the Muslim community in Rhode Island (0.1 percent of the state’s population, according to the 2010 U.S. Religious Census) can make them reluctant to report a problem to outsiders, particularly given widespread Islamophobia. The mothers’ group has helped, says Aamina: Even the activities designed specifically for children, like playdates, meetups in the park and the monthly Lil’ Mumineen Storytime at the Islamic School of Rhode Island mitigate feelings of isolation by bringing the mothers together.

RICMA’s slate of projects also includes services to and collaboration with refugees, whose numbers continue to grow as a result of U.S. military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. Project Peacework began with Deborah Chase, who leads a crochet and knitting group called Nasty Knitters (they produced the pink “pussy” hats for the Providence Women’s March in January, says Aisha), and who reached out to Aisha about providing bedding to refugees. “So I began collecting yarn, needles and hooks for one month,” Aisha recalls. “We had so many donations and the refugee women were able to crochet/knit blanket squares along with a few other crochet/knitting groups that had joined. We meet once a month at the Providence Friends Meetinghouse and women get together to make blanket squares to form blankets.”

Another group under RICMA’s umbrella, AHOPE (Americans Helping Others ProspEr) is similarly volunteer-led and focuses on helping refugees in the state. Aisha also runs a side project called Refuge in Rhode Island for which she interviews refugee families, bringing along URI professor of photography Annu Palakunnathu Matthew and a translator. She then posts the family’s story on Facebook and Instagram. The “negativity the media spews regarding refugees and their silent presence on mainstream media outlets is very disconcerting,” Aisha explains. “So I wanted their stories to be heard.”

Eva Sasa is one of RICMA’s founders (and helped Aisha start the Rhode Island SOSS). Eva is a member of RICMA’s speakers bureau; her academic background includes international relations, Montessori education, history and holistic medicine. She’s currently studying midwifery and has been involved in RICMA’s increasing outreach to medical facilities around “care work and considerations regarding potential Muslim patients.” Even this topic is immeasurably complex, and not only due to the varying levels of religious observance in Rhode Island’s Muslim community: Doctors “are going to be faced with culture and culture often overrides religion,” Eva says. “Many times someone will come in and not know Islamically if something is allowed or not allowed,” but will attribute one of their cultural practices to Islam. “You can have an entire spectrum of Muslim patients. Someone who comes to you who is Saudi is not going to be the same as a Nigerian.” Islam contains “an immense flexibility, and that allows there to be many cultures.” (Some pregnant women will fast during Ramadan, for instance, while others will not; Islam does not mandate or forbid fasting during pregnancy.) In the end, Eva says, her advice during a recent visit to medical students at RIC was to keep cultural diversity in mind and “just ask” the patient.

Eva’s involvement in RICMA has fluctuated since its founding, depending on the needs of her four children. But the current climate, she says, “really required me to step back in.” Anti-Muslim activity has been rife throughout the country since the presidential election, including a number of reported incidents in Rhode Island in which people have made anti-Muslim comments toward visibly Muslim women and even pulled off their hijabs. “There’s an incredible amount of people in our community that are knowledgeable in so many areas that are really willing to answer questions and meet and talk,” Eva says. “We’re not hiding, we’re open to having these dialogues. At the end of the day, the dialogue is the only way we’re going to break down the walls of fear on both sides.”

And with a Muslim community so small, the success of RICMA is integral to keeping that dialogue going. “RICMA is needed now more than ever as a voice for the Muslim community,” Aisha says. “RICMA is like the spokesman for all Rhode Island Muslims.”