Growing up, Muad Hrezi said he and his Libyan-American family would go out to eat regularly.
Despite growing fear in the Muslim community after 9/11, his family went on with their lives as if everything was normal.
His mother wore a hijab, and unlike many Muslim women in America, she kept wearing it after the terrorist attacks. His family didn’t want to hide their faith. They were proud Muslims who felt connected to their American community.
When he was 8 years old, Hrezi said, his family was dining out like usual. Except this time, instead of being seated as soon as a table opened, the restaurant staff left his family waiting for two and a half hours.
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“That’s when it struck us that we weren’t going to be served,” he said. “That was a powerful moment for me that defined the struggles that I was going to come across growing up.”
Flyleaf Books hosted “Straight Talk With Real Muslims,” a panel discussion on Sunday organized by Krista Bremer and her husband, Ismail Suayah.
Bremer, author of “A Tender Struggle: Story of a Marriage,” converted to Islam after marrying her husband, a Libyan-born North Carolinian. She organized the panel because she felt many Americans don't understand Islam.
Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of Yusor Barakat and Razan Abu-Salha, who were killed in the Chapel Hill shooting last year, spoke to the crowd before the panel began.
Abu-Salha said he hopes the panel and more events like it can erase the notion that Muslims come from a monolithic culture. He said he sees no contradictions between being an American and being a Muslim.
“Often Razan would be asked ‘where do you come from?’ because she wore the scarf,” Abu-Salha said. “And the answer was Virginia Beach, Virginia.”
The panel’s makeup challenged the notion that there is any one way to practice Islam.
“Our intention was to bring together a diverse group of flesh and blood Muslims who could speak to you and show you the richness and the difference of interpretation and opinion and life experience in our Muslim community,” Bremer said. “We really wanted to offer that as a contrast to the one-dimensional or distorted portrayal of Muslims that we often see in the media.”
The three women on the panel each had a different journey to Islam. Maisha Pesante, a physician at the federal prison in Butner, N.C., was raised in the faith. Rebecca Caroline traveled the world after college, eventually settling in the Swat valley in Pakistan and converting. Deonna Kelli Sayed was raised in the south and converted to Islam on her own. She later married an Afghan diplomat, raising his five children and having a child of their own. She later left Afghanistan and returned to the United States.
The women received several questions related to Islam’s treatment of women.
Sayed said that as a feminist she sometimes struggled to practice the more controversial teachings of the Quran. Sayed wore a hijab for several years, but chose to stop wearing it for spiritual reasons, not because she felt oppressed by it.
“You have to start this intellectual and spiritual journey of asking the divine to help you understand,” Sayed said. “It’s hard for me sometimes to understand the historical context, but then I see the amount of mercy and compassion that the Quran and the Hadiths speak about, and that my role as a women within those texts is celebrated.”
The women pointed out that the teaches of Islam come from a time when women had a different role in society, and the teachings of Islam parallel Christianity when it comes to the rights held by women.
Pesante said in some cases, Islam gives more rights to women than Christianity does. Women are allowed full control of their finances as well as access to their husband’s earnings. Husbands are required to buy their wife gifts and are held responsible for their wife’s sexual pleasure.
Though there are no female Imams, there are many famous and celebrated female sheikhs, or Islamic spiritual teachers.
Pesante said she takes comfort in knowing there are female sheikhs she can consult when she has questions that she wouldn’t feel comfortable asking a man.
“We were some of the first female scholars in the world,” Pesante said. “The only thing we don’t do is lead the prayer like the Imam.”
The panelists also fielded questions about extremists’ misinterpretations of Islam.
Pesante said terrorists target Muslim scholars, killing them first so they can invade communities and claim a monopoly on interpretations of the Quran and Hadith.
“The first people they kill are the Muslim scholars, because that’s who’s going to stand up against what they’re doing,” Pesante said.
In contrast to extremism abroad, the panelists spoke about the harmful stereotypes they face in America.
“The most challenging aspect of being Muslim, in relation to America, is the Islamophobia and the bigotry that I’ve come across growing up,” Hrenzi said.
When asked how non-Muslims could make Muslims feel safer and welcomed in their community, Hrezi had a simple answer.
“Just smile,” said Hrezi. “When I would walk with my mother down the street, we would get disgusted looks from people. It doesn’t seem like much, but just smiling at us can go a long way.”