URBANA – With cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad sparking violence overseas, members of the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center Sunday invited community members to get to know them better.
"We decided to hold an open house soon after the publication of the Danish cartoons, the offensive misrepresentations of Muhammad," said Irfan Ahmad, outreach coordinator for the center. "We want to show people there are ways to address these issues peacefully and intellectually. The violence is being caused by less than 1 percent of Islam."
Ahmad said the open house was scheduled before the Daily Illini also published some of the cartoons that touched off violent confrontations in several countries.
Ahmad said the DI action compounded the importance of communications with the community.
"We want to send a strong message," he said. "Yes, we're offended, but violence is not the way Muhammad would address it. What's going on negates the teachings of Islam. We talk about obedience, submissiveness to the will of God, peace."
"The trouble's not about the cartoons," said Nada Youssef, a 16-year-old Central High School student. "I think racism is reaching a new level, it's another thing to push our buttons, and we've been dragged into it by the rioting.
"I don't think the DI editors understand how offensive it is to us. In the holy book, it says not to draw pictures of the prophets, not to idolize them. That's part of the foundation of our faith."
Nada and her sister, Yasmin, 19, a UI student, produced a video patterned after Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."
"It's a spoof and I'm a reporter looking for Muslims in the press," Nada said. "All I can find is terrorists. I interview real Muslims, and we find out they're normal people."
The video played in one corner of the spacious center, which was filled with members, visitors and lots of children.
"Wherever you find Arabs, you'll find children," Nada said. "Being a Muslim is a totally different lifestyle. As a teen it's tough because you see subtle racism. But you have to deal with it. Central is very diverse and I love it, but sometimes people don't notice what they're saying. But when we come to the mosque, everyone's family."
Tom Ginsburg, a law professor at the UI, said he attended the open house to support his students.
"Some are members of this community, and like everyone here, I was appalled at the pictures in the DI," Ginsburg said. "I think it's good for this Muslim community to reach out to the public, and I'm here to support this community and my students."
Naeem Sheikh, an Urbana resident and UI graduate student, said he believes educating people about the religion practiced at the center is a positive way to counteract all the negative news from overseas.
Sheikh, who's originally from Pakistan, said the center's community is divided roughly into two groups, Muslims who came to the community years ago and stayed and Muslims who are currently spending time at the UI or in the community and may return to their homes overseas.
"Our membership represents 30 different countries from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Far and Middle East," he said. "It's very diverse and we learn from each other about our cultures and even about our common religion. It's very welcoming."
Ahmad said there are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, with 8 million in America and an estimated 3,000 in central Illinois.
The mosque has about 300 voting members, he said.