With terror attacks multiplying around the world and at home, American Muslims are constantly fending off collateral damage to their collective reputation.
And increasingly, they’re on the receiving end of hate-fueled violence, as in the recent case of a recent van attack on a London mosque and the young Virginia girl beaten to death after being abducted on her way back to early morning Ramadan prayers.
But in a time of division, exacerbated by heated debate over national security and President Donald Trump’s so-called “travel ban” targeting mostly Muslim nations, some organizations are redoubling their efforts to present a more nuanced picture of the world’s second most practiced faith.
The City of Atlanta joined in that effort this week when it hosted the first ever Iftar dinner at City Hall June 20. Iftars are eaten after sundown during the holy month of Ramadan, breaking the all-day fast required during daylight hours. They’re also sometimes used as a medium for interfaith dialogue.
“I think the timing couldn’t have been better,” said Soumaya Khalifa, executive director of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, which helped organize the dinner. “On the national front, there are a lot of attacks on Muslims and messages that Muslims are second-class citizens.”
Ms. Khalifa, whose organization worked closely with Welcoming Atlanta to make the dinner happen, said Atlanta joins other cities like New York and Detroit with this timely outreach.
“That really speaks volumes about Mayor (Kasim) Reed and his commitment to diversity and inclusion in the city of Atlanta,” she said.
Ms. Khalifa’s father died this week, preventing her from attending the dinner, but she was given an award by the mayor for her efforts to connect people of various faiths.
Watching the event from afar, she was struck by the mayor’s message of inclusion — and the fact that he tied the city’s role as a Civil Rights hub to its economic success.
“We know first-hand the kind of social progress we can achieve when we work together, work through our differences and transcend the primitive barriers of segregation and division,” he said. “We’ve seen the kind of business success and economic opportunity we can achieve when we ensure that Atlanta is a city for everyone.”
The mayor also lauded the achievements and contributions of more than 100,000 Muslims in metro Atlanta, some of whom are among the 20,000 Muslim physicians across the U.S.
He noted that Georgia is home to more than 80 mosques and that Atlantans of all faiths would do well to understand those different from themselves. It’s rewarding and just makes life more interesting, he said:
I believe it is essential that Atlantans of all religious backgrounds get to know their Muslim neighbors. The divisive times we live in call on us to seek a deeper understanding of all of our residents. Only by broadening our inter-faith relationships, can we come to a greater collective appreciation of our rich and multi-faceted culture.
Ms. Khalifa, reached by phone, said it’s important not to view Muslims as culturally or socioeconomically monolithic. Unknown to some, nearly a third of Muslims in the U.S. are African American, while about the same portion are of Asian descent. While some refugees are Muslim, so are some doctors and lawyers.
Timing on this Iftar dinner, she said, is key, as many Muslims from overseas are starting to harbor doubts about traveling to the U.S.
“It’s very important for Atlanta because there is the perception in the world out there that America does not like Muslims. I know people who I have personally met because they are afraid to come to the U.S. because of what might happen to them.”
Mr. Reed has spoken out against intolerance and three years ago launched an Office of Immigrant Affairs to implement a strategy of welcoming and integrating the city’s diverse foreign-born communities.
He received a courage award from the speakers’ bureau in 2016, according to Nabile Safdar, an Emory University radiology researcher who introduced the mayor at the event.
Ms. Khalifa said she hopes the event sets a precedent for the next mayor of Atlanta, who will be elected later this year.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Reed put a stake in the ground for his successor.
“I know everybody in the room knows we’ve got a pretty big election going on. But what I said when folks asked me about my schedule today was that I think being at this dinner is exactly what is needed in our elections — folks that believe all people are valued and that everyone counts.”
That remark earned him a round of applause.