The number of worshipers for prayers at Annoor Islamic Center in Clemmons quadrupled on Friday, with about 300 people from the Winston-Salem area joining the congregation in a show of solidarity against animosity expressed towards Muslims a week earlier at a meeting of conservatives at a Kernersville seafood restaurant.
A Forsyth County sheriff’s deputy took up a station near the entrance of the mosque to ensure safety for the worshipers and parking attendants waved the visitors into two lots on either side of the worship center. Visitors filed in separate entrances for men and women, with the women wearing scarves as a sign of respect, and sat quietly in folding chairs as the Muslim men prostrated themselves on the floor. Some people prayed outside and in a school annex after the mosque filled.
“It’s not easy to hear someone say, ‘Kill them all — just wipe them out,’” Imam Hamdy Radwan said in his sermon. “It’s like no respect for human beings, no respect for life. Bad people are everywhere, Muslims and non-Muslims. They are doing bad stuff, but that’s only a small number compared to the 1.6 or -.7 billion Muslims that are living and eating and dancing; we’ve got married; we have problems with children. They are listening to the book of Allah, the book of God, the Koran. The book says that if a person kills one person, it’s as if he has killed the whole humanity. And if a person saves one soul, it’s as if he’s saved the whole humanity. This is what we know, this is what we learned from the Prophet Mohammad.
“There are some verses in every text — the gospels, the Bible, the Torah, the Koran — that teach you to defend yourself if someone attacks you or tries to kill you,” Hamdy continued. “But in this country we are protected. We are secure with the authority, with the rules of the land, and we respect the rule of the land. No one should think that to protect themselves by even having guns — I’m not in support of having guns, but that’s a different political issue — but we are secure, and we should give it to the authorities to secure us. We should not do it by ourselves. The verses of the Koran is telling all of us that we should push against each other, but be good and lenient, love each other. And the love of the neighbor in the Koran is so much [more] sacred than the love of the brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers.”
Radwan said members of the mosque, which was the focus of extended discussion during the Kernersville meeting, have been overwhelmed by expressions of support from the larger community. He read from cards received from a Girl Scout troop in Kernersville. One read, “I think Muslims should be treated the same way we’re treated even if we’re all going through hardship.” Another said, “You are loved. You have a gold heart. We are praying for you. Love you.”
Radwan said the mosque felt obliged to take steps to protect its members by contacting law enforcement and asking them to investigate the people who attended the Kernersville meeting to “make sure this will not move to the next step,” adding that he is also looking for the opportunity for dialogue — “sit with them, meet with them, taste our food, bring them here to talk to them. From this pulpit I extend an invitation for them to come.”
Radwan, who emigrated from Egypt, also expressed sympathy about the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis over the previous week, and support for journalists across the United States.
“One of the main reasons I came to this country is free speech and free press,” he said, gesturing towards a cluster of reporters wielding television cameras and notebooks. “Now, to hear in the media that the journalists are the enemy of the people — you are not the enemy.”
After the service, the hosts ushered their guests into the school building next door for a public forum and question-and-answer session.
Jerry McLeese, founder of Interfaith Winston-Salem, compared what he called “conventional wisdoms” that Islam is incompatible with American democracy and that women who wear the hijab are oppressed with earlier notions in the South that Catholics are not Christians and black people do not deserve to be addressed as “Mr.” and “Mrs.,” which have now been discredited.
“We are here today to help dismantle some of these conventional wisdoms — wisdoms that want to paint Islam with a brush of terrorism and shackle Muslims with fears and insecurity,” McLeese said. “It’s time to reassess our conventional wisdoms in the revealing light of the values that we hold dear: integrity, compassion, neighborhliness and truth. It’s time that we welcome our Muslim brothers and sisters into the fullness of our community.”
Interfaith Winston-Salem, along with the Wake Forest University Office of the Chaplain, put out a call on Thursday for people to show support for the Muslim community by attending Friday prayers at Annoor Islamic Center, along with the Community Mosque and Masjid al-Muminun, both in Winston-Salem.
The forum provided visitors an opportunity to ask questions about Islam, some of them pointed and uncomfortable.
Marie Davis, who identified herself as Catholic, asked, “What about the practice of marrying off young girls to older men?”
Tychus Carter, the outreach coordinator at the Islamic Center of Greensboro, said the question was “more than acceptable” and “absolutely valid and needs explanation for complete understanding and complete solidarity between the two because when you don’t understand something it usually causes enmity and things of this sort.”
Carter said that, according to the Koran, “You are to marry women who are — what? — hit puberty, which means they are capable of having — what? — children. Another particular criteria of this is [that they are] mentally, emotionally, education-wise and well as physically prepared for that particular marriage. Another comparison that you have to also understand is that during [earlier times] people were given a hell of a lot more responsibility than they are now. And so people who are the age of 12, 13, 14, they had way more responsibility than the children do now. And so the question really is, if you’re going to take that which we agree on today and try to apply it in that time, yes, you’re going to have a problem.”
Davis continued to press Radwan with edgy questions, culminating with a query about whether he would issue a fatwa against her if she were to insult the Prophet Mohammed. Radwan refused to answer her question, maintaining that he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to insult any prophet.
Nancy McKay, who also identified herself as Catholic chided Davis for the tone of her questions.
“I feel that your body language and the tone of your questions were not from someone who really, truly wanted to know the answer,” McKay told Davis, “but someone who was trying to get a little angst going, and I apologize if that was not your intention, but that was the way it came off.”
At the end of the forum, a girl in a hijab approached Davis, but she broke down in tears before she could speak. The girl gave Davis a hug at the urging of a Muslim man in the room.
Dina Shehata, a member of Annoor Islamic Center who grew up in Advance, attempted to dispel some notions about Islam being oppressive towards women by noting that she earned a master’s degree from NC State University, and recently received approval to work in the US State Department. She said she wears a hijab as a spiritual decision, and that no one forced her to. She added, “I chose my man.”
Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse, who represents the Southwest Ward, asked if there was any particular action that people in Forsyth County “could take to show respect for your presence as a part of our community and opposition to the threats and misbehavior that have been coming from some irresponsible sectors.”
In response, Wasif Qureshi, suggested that city council pass a resolution against hate speech.
Shehata said she has been receiving “non-stop” messages of love and support in response to the violent talk and anti-Islamic sentiments at the Kernersville meeting.
“All these misconceptions, all these problems that are happening,” she said, “they would all be squashed if every single person were to meet a Muslim person, or somebody else from a different faith, or from a different culture or country.”