Leaders at the Islamic Center of Manhattan are working to build a better understanding of their religion and address its misconceptions.
The center, at 1224 Hylton Heights Road, had an open house recently with one intention being for non-Muslims to learn about Islam.
With about 500 members, the center is a hub for Manhattan’s minority population of practicing Muslims. They go there to pray, take classes and attend social events.
“Many American people, they’re not about Islam unless there is something in the news,” Adnan Alkhiary, president of the center, said.
Alkhiary, 44, said that some Americans might associate a negative portrayal of the Middle East in the news with Islam. He said the facts about the religion aren’t very clear.
That’s why he holds an open house every year. He said if he could, he would do it twice a year.
Alkhiary’s collegue, Hayder Rasheed, 48, said providing opportunities for education is important in a post-9/11 America.
“We are part of the big community here in Manhattan, so we would like to tell people we’d like [them] to know everything about us and would like to be an integrated part of the community,” Rasheed said. Rasheed, who is a civil engineering professor at Kansas State University and faculty adviser for the Islamic Center, came to Manhattan in 2001.
He said he was fortunate not to have experienced any acts of intolerance around that time.
“We feel blessed to be in such a community that has tolerance and understanding,” he said. “Of course, we had to do a lot of open houses post-9/11, and we educated the community a lot about what we do and what Islam is all about.”
And because Muslims are a minority in Kansas and in the United States, the need for education persists. The Islamic Center has many pamphlets, including “Understanding Islam and the Muslims,” “What Does Islam Say About Terrorism?” and “Human Rights in Islam.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about Islam is about how Muslim women are treated, Rasheed said.
“We have highly educated women in our society, and we highly regard the women in our society,” he said.
Rasheed said that among little-known facts about Muslim women are that they aren’t required to change their last names once married.
That’s true for Colleen Hill, 30, who is a former Manhattanite and a white, American-born, Christian-to-Muslim convert.
Hill, who now lives in Topeka, converted in 2008 after she had been researching Islam, questioning Christianity.
She had questions about Islam, and that’s how she met her husband, Mohammad Sahtout, 33, a doctoral student at K-State.
“I grew up as a Christian, but there was no passion,” Hill said. “It seemed false to me. The more I started to read about Islam, the more it made Christianity seem strange.”
She said that though there are certain expectations of women in Islam, including tending to the house and family along with covering themselves, those expectations vary from household to household.
Hill, an elementary school teacher in Topeka, said she made the decision to cover her head with a hijab even when she got negative feedback, having been called a terrorist and a jihadist.
“I get the question ‘Would you ever take it off?’ And for me it would be weird because it would feel like I would be missing something,” she said.
Rasheed said head covering is not exclusive to Muslim women.
“Have you seen a picture of Mary without covering her hair?” he said.
Then there are Catholic nuns who are also known to cover their hair.
“People forget about those connections. People forget about those similarities,” Hill said.
Hill’s husband, Mohammad Sahtout, said some misconceptions arise out of confusion: “From the media, the main thing is the misconception between Islam and the culture of a country.”
The Islamic Center’s president, Alkhiary, said that notion explains Saudi Arabian women’s battle for the right to drive right now. In that issue, he said, it’s about the country’s culture and laws.
A lot of cultures come under the roof of Manhattan’s Islamic Center. Alkhiary said Muslims from more than 20 countries worship at the center and attend religious events.
Despite any differences between countries or between religions, Rasheed said the main thing he wanted others to know about Islam is that it’s about peace.
“We are peace-loving citizens. We share a lot of common things with the rest of our community, and we love the fact that we are free to practice our religion in this country, and we want to reflect that appreciation,” he said.