COLUMBIA - Zaid Mahir moved to the United States from Iraq seven years ago to pursue his Ph.D. in English at the University of Missouri. He is a practicing Muslim and said there are many things people in mid-Missouri just don't understand about Islam. Though he said these misunderstandings are nothing new, he also said the Midwest is behind the curve in coming to understanding more about the religion.
"Misconceptions about Islam and Muslims in the United States in general and mid-Missouri in particular have revolved historically around women, marriage, sexuality and, of course recently, Islam's threat to non-Muslims," Mahir said.
Mahir said these misunderstandings have been longstanding, but the terrorist attacks against the United States in September of 2001 have muddied the water and, in Mahir's mind, made things worse. It has been ten years since then and Mahir believes things have improved. But he also believes there is still a need for education about the religion for those in the Midwest.
"You still feel that the change is not yet complete in the Midwest," Mahir said. "You feel probably you need some time before people change their minds and start questioning their own beliefs, things they have taken for granted about others. Muslims in particular."
Mahir said it all comes down to education. The Islamic Center of Central Missouri in downtown Columbia has been doing just that for years. According to Dr. Rashed Nizam, an active member of the center and a local ophthalmologist, the center does significant outreach in the community, including making food every Sunday for the St. Francis homeless shelter and donating goods to the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri. Nazim said this is just part of being a Muslim.
"We care about the community because one of our important tasks is to care for our neighbors," Nazim said.
Nazim said the Muslim community in Missouri and worldwide is a peace-loving community and it wants those around to have a better understanding of the faith.
"People need to know," Nazim said. "And it is our responsibility to reach out and to tell people. So I would say that people should try and learn. They can call here, they can come and visit us or find their own colleague to ask about Islam."
Both men said education is the key to solving the misunderstandings people still have about Islam. Mahir said things have been improving and he can see it around him.
"In the face of those people who hold onto those misconceptions and perpetuate them there is a significant number of Americans who refuse this and who reach out and support Muslims and their cause."