Forum Planned to Break Barriers: Between Muslims and Community

A group of faith-based groups representing several different religions has planned a forum to help break down the barriers between Muslims in Revere and their neighbors – a forum largely in response to threatening notes found last month in the Shirley Avenue area.

The First Congregational Church on Beach Street will host the event, ‘Meet Your Muslim Neighbors’ on April 11 at 6 p.m. in conjunction with the Al Huda Society, Rabbi Joseph Berman, Women Encouraging Empowerment (WEE), Revere House of Pastry, and ICNA Relief USA.

The forum will have brief presentations, a question and answer session, a bridge building activity, refreshments (Moroccan tea and Middle Eastern sweets) and a social hour.

“Things like these notes, they create tension,” said Pastor Tim Bogertman of First Congregational. “If we don’t do something about it, it will escalate. This is the right time to do something to counter this. Revere is a great place to live and we don’t want to allow incidents like this to fester. We are all coming together to say we love the City and its people and we can’t let hate fester…The differences are there. We can acknowledge that, but the things we have in common we can fight together for.”

The fighting together aspect is essentially what brought the groups together last year. In essence, the groups of Catholic, protestant, Muslim and Jewish groups formed a close working relationship during the anti-casino fight of 2013 and 2014. At that time, faith-based groups united across religious lines to oppose the casino, but now they’re uniting to encourage all segments of the community to come and learn from one another.

Malika MacDonald-Rushdan, a Muslim activist with ICNA Relief USA who formerly lived in Revere and works with communities all over the state, said she actually converted to Islam while living in Revere before Sept. 11, 2001. She said the hatred fostered by the recent notes is not the Revere she knows. She said she was one of the first people to get the call from Muslim women in Revere when the notes were found. Out of that fearful time, she said, many Muslim women here decided it was time to do something different to break barriers in the community.

“There have always been a lot of Muslims living here,” she said. “That’s why it was surprising when I heard about this because it’s not the Revere I know. I think it’s a minority of people doing these things, but they do exist. These women wanted to do something different, but didn’t feel they had the ability to do it alone. The truth of it is these are women who are mothers and wives and sisters here in Revere and they want to come together and build relationships with their neighbors. They want to do more than just talk about what a Muslim believes. They want to come together and talk about similarities and build on that.”

She said one of the main problems from her perspective is that so much is seen on television – and especially now with the extreme violence going on in the Middle East – that a warped vision of one’s Muslim neighbors can be formed.

“We need more responsible news outlets,” she said. “They’re putting us all into one category. That’s pretty dangerous. Whether intentionally or not, they’re putting American Muslims in danger. People always ask why we aren’t denouncing terrorism. Leaders within the American Muslim community have spoken out for years and years and years, over and over again, but it’s not heard. We don’t have the platform like Fox News. There are so many misconceptions about Muslims and Islam…Even the word ‘jihad’ is misunderstood. It means a personal struggle. It means the personal struggle of putting ones desires aside. It’s like the Golden Rule. That’s the true essence of jihad. It’s a personal struggle, but most Americans hear that word, and believe it means ‘Holy War.’”

Some of those misconceptions – along with other incidents in the community – have led to unfettered fear within the Revere Muslim community.

Fatou Fatty, of Women Encouraging Empowerment (WEE), said her group, which is not a faith-based group, works extensively with Muslim women – among other female immigrants. Many are primarily from North Africa and they come to WEE to learn English and to learn the civic structure of the local government. Through that work, Fatty said they have learned that many events in the community have fostered a feeling of fear – especially for Muslim women.

“Many of the Muslim women we work with say they have come to Revere because they feel it’s a safe place for them,” she said. “If there is fear festering, you will see people who will not come out because they’re scared and feel like they’re targets. They will stay in the house and not come out. You saw that here after the Marathon bombings and you saw that during the controversy in the schools last year surrounding the teaching about Islam in Revere schools. There were so many women after the notes were found who live on or near Shirley Avenue who were afraid to walk down Shirley Avenue or to the train station.”

With a stronger bond between neighbors and community members of all different stripes, the hope is that in such times, that fear might be drowned out by the stronger bonds of familiarity – whether for Muslims or non-Muslims.

“There is a real opportunity here because we have such a diverse community,” said Bogertman. “We need to foster more events like this. Our kids get to enjoy such a diverse community in their schools. They experience that on a daily basis, but how are we doing with the adults in our community?”Added MacDonald-Rushdan, “New England and Boston are better off than other parts of the country because they are free thinking and question things. This will be a great time to come and ask questions.”

Seth Daniel can be reached at [email protected]

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