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In search of 'truth over fear'

Muslim chaplain to speak on Islam

Anti-Islamic sentiment in the country swelled in the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But for Mary Lahaj, Muslim chaplain at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, those energies had been taking root on US soil for decades prior.

She remembers the telephone calls that came flooding into mosques around Boston after airplane hijackings first began in 1985. Some callers politely asked for speakers to come for talks, hoping to deepen their knowledge about Islam. Others called to make negative remarks about the religion.

Islam "went from anonymous to terrorist," said Lahaj.

Lahaj will talk about the religion in an effort to combat what she calls Islamophobia at a symposium on Islam scheduled for this month and next at the Groton Public Library. Borrowing a phrase used as a slogan by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an educational and activist group with offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, Lahaj is calling her effort a "truth over fear campaign."

In her lecture, scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 6, Lahaj plans to discuss a variety of topics about Islam but hopes to focus mainly on Muslims' role and connection to American history and contemporary society.

Many people don't know, for instance, that Thomas Jefferson owned a Koran, said Lahaj, who is Muslim student adviser at the Groton School. Most people may also not know that early Muslims instituted a form of democracy in its early goings to elect its leaders, linking Islam indelibly to the democratic values of this country, she said.

Another speaker in the symposium is Paul Beran, director of the Outreach Center at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

In a phone interview last week, Beran said the message he is hoping to drive home is that Islam is a global community with diverse manifestations, both theologically and culturally. With more than a billion adherents worldwide, Islam is in a state of transition, making it difficult to stereotype, he said.

"I think we need to be more rigorous in our studies, so that we begin to see these realities," said Beran.

With all the media attention on Islam, American interest in the religion has burgeoned, giving birth to new markets, such as a new Muslim magazine for Muslim women in North America, known as Azizah, and even a Canadian sitcom, "Little Mosque on the Prairie," featuring Muslim characters, he said.

"Most of the characters [in the show] are Muslim and help to broaden our understanding of how we look at Islam," said Beran.

Lahaj, whose family has deep ties to Greater Boston and helped found the oldest mosque in New England in 1964 in Quincy, said the media attention has proved a "doubled-edged sword" from her perspective as a Muslim. At one end, it has damaged the image of sincere Muslims. But on the other, it has served to deepen interest in the religion and perhaps even drawn converts to the faith.

When she was young, "we didn't see [Islam] in the media," she said. "We didn't see it in the movies. We were just a big nothing."

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