About 26,000 Muslims live in North Carolina, a 30 percent increase during the past 10 years. At the same time, the post 9/11 fear of Islamic terrorism continues to dominate people's views of the Muslim religion and people in their community.
Clay Johnson, a producer at WRAL News, worked on a documentary about Muslims in North Carolina called "Faith, Fear and Freedom." He said that in North Carolina, sometimes ignorance prevails among the non-Muslim community. He asked Muslim leaders about their efforts to teach the truth about Islam.
"A lot of them said, 'We haven't done a good enough job of reaching out to non-Muslims and educating them about who we are." Johnson told Frank Stasio on The State of Things.
Stasio talked to a panel of experts about the experience of being Muslim in North Carolina. Rose Aslan, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focuses on Islamic studies and teaches undergraduates about Islam. She said the students’ questions change during the course of a semester.
"In the beginning it was more, 'What is Sharia? Is Islam a violent religion?’” she said. “But towards the end they would ask more sophisticated questions."
For instance, students might start wondering how women in Islam feel about their roles in family and professional life, and whether they feel oppressed, as some in Western culture believe.
For Muslims themselves, it becomes necessary to have a safe place in which to express their views. Mohammad Moussa, a former student leader for the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at North Carolina State University, said organizations such as the MSA are essential.
"I feel like places like the Muslim Student association... provide that sort of environment where people are still connected to their roots...while still being a normal citizen,” he said.
He also said that it’s not the responsibility of individual Muslims to defend their religion, particularly when accusations are based on ignorance rather than fact.
"I don't think we're to blame if someone views us negatively," he said.
However, he added that educating people always helps to lessen prejudice.
"Education is such an important aspect of Islam,” he said. “Educating your fellow Muslims around you, as well as your environment around you and your community."
Ali Zelmat heads an outreach committee at the Islamic Association of Raleigh. She often does presentations in local schools. She says the questions she receives at the lower levels tell her that the students are driven by genuine curiosity.
"They have questions, and in elementary school that question might be, ‘Do you take a shower in those clothes?’ which is great, because it means they're thinking about what life is actually like for you," she said.
Of course, from time to time, she does receive questions that show evidence of prejudice. But she’s used to it. Kids can’t help but mirror their role models.
"I expect that. That's just the reality of growing up,” she said. “You follow the lead of whoever you're around."
"Fear, Faith and Freedom"