Education key in understanding Muslims

This story was published on Sept. 11, 2007 on Page A8 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

Omar Conteh was a 15-year-old student at Bangor High School six years ago.

Now a student at University College in Bangor studying mental health and human services, he said Monday that his relationships in the community haven’t changed since Sept. 11, 2001.

Conteh, who has lived in Bangor for a decade and played soccer in high school, also said that Muslims who come to Maine from overseas to attend the college feel much more apprehensive than people who have roots in the community as he does.

“Some have concerns about safety in the back of their minds,” Conteh said, “so they try to stay out of any situation that might be sticky.”

Conteh knows most members of the small Muslim community in Greater Bangor through the Islamic Center of Maine in Orono. Fifty to 70 people, many of them students attending the University of Maine, worship at Friday prayer services, he said.

The mosque opened in January 2002 at the corner of Park and Washburn streets in Orono. Although Muslim communities in southern Maine are larger than the northern Maine group, the Orono community was the first in the state to own its own land and building.

Members of the Orono mosque, along with the Muslim Student Association at the university, have offered educational sessions on campus and at area churches over the past six years. Conteh said programs would be offered at UMaine and in the community again this year but dates have not been set.

Although on-campus groups in Orono, at the University of Southern Maine in Portland and on other campuses around the state have worked hard to educate their peers and the public about Islam, perceptions and stereotypes have been difficult to change off campus.

At least a dozen hate crimes have been reported to the Maine Attorney General’s Office since fall 2001.

“We rarely had any cases before September 11,” Thomas Harnett, assistant attorney general for civil rights education and enforcement, said Monday. “The number of incidents rose in the aftermath.”

While any incident is troubling, Harnett said, his office has had approximately 12 reports of anti-Muslim incidents in the past six years. His office pursued six of those in court.

In working with students on Civil Rights Teams at schools throughout the state, Harnett said he and his staff make a point of talking about language Muslims and people with roots in the Middle East might find hurtful.

He said that is a step toward preventing future hate crimes like the one that drew national attention to Maine last year when on July 3, 2006, a Lewiston man rolled a frozen pig’s head into a Lewiston mosque while 40 men were bowed in prayer.

Muslims are prohibited from eating pork, and the act was viewed by many as an insult upon the religion.

“My understanding is that the general feeling in the Muslim community is that most Americans feel [that Muslims] are connected to people who want to hurt us,” Harnett said Monday.

A survey conducted in 2004 and 2005 by the Council on American-Islamic Relations bore that out. The Washington, D.C.-based organization founded in 1994 found that nearly one in five Americans had a strong anti-Muslim attitude. While 27 percent were found to be tolerant of Muslims, only 6 percent had a positive first impression of Muslims, according to the study results posted on CAIR’s Web site.

Muslims in Maine most likely today are preparing for Ramadan, their most important religious holiday, which is expected to begin at sunset Wednesday or Thursday, depending on when the moon that marks its beginning is sighted.

Ramadan is a monthlong religious observance that requires all healthy adult Muslims to abstain from food and drink, including water, smoking, and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset. The month is to be devoted to reflection and spiritual discipline.

The holiday will end with a joyous celebration on Oct. 12 called Id al-Fitr.