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SHINING A LIGHT ON ISLAM
"We're here to extend our mutual Semitic warmth," Maurice Schoenbrum beamed, as congregation members of Temple Beth El in Salinas joined with local Muslims to learn about Islam.
Schoenbrum, who organized the 1½-hour Sunday program as part of the temple's adult education series, smiled over the fact that several dozen people made it through Sunday's storms to hear Safaa Ibrahim, executive director of the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR.
"People say Islam is either the simplest religion on earth or the most complicated," Ibrahim told the group, depending on how deeply one delves into studying the Quran's verses.
What she offers, she said, is "Islam 101."
Ibrahim, who was born in Cairo, raised in the United States and now lives in Rio Del Mar, took over as head of CAIR's Santa Clara-based offices in July. She is the chapter's first female director, and her presentation was part of CAIR's mission to educate Americans about Islam.
She also hopes to challenge the false impressions of Islam held by many.
"Unfortunately, terrorism speaks louder than the peaceful voices of Islam," Ibrahim said, because the media reports a few extremist Muslims' acts of violence far more often than "mainstream" Muslims' acts of peace.
An example of skewed reporting, she said, is a recent Barbara Walters story about concepts of heaven and hell. Walters interviewed a rabbi and a Catholic priest, but the report showed only a would-be suicide bomber to represent Islam, Ibrahim said.
The real Islam, she said, is "contradictory to what is being carried out by a few criminals in the world."
Temple Beth El's rabbi, William Greenebaum, said he realized as Ibrahim spoke that Judaism and Islam have much in common, such as observing Mondays and Thursday as holy days, or the religions' deep connections to Abraham.
"Constantly, as you were speaking," he told Ibrahim, "I was thinking, yes, we have the same things. We could probably worship together."
Although Ibrahim told the audience she was not there to discuss politics or the war in Iraq, a moment of tension sparked during a question-and-answer session as Arabs and Jews in the audience brought up Palestine and Israel, and threats against Israel from Iran.
But Ibrahim managed to gracefully steer the group back to the subject she came to talk about -- religion.
Afterward, she acknowledged that hers can be a difficult job at times, and said she's had to face tougher crowds who want to blame Islam for terrorists' actions. Still, she said, "I'd rather have them ask and hear it from me, as opposed to getting it all from media reports. I welcome it."
Schoenbrum said extremists' far-flung interpretations of the Quran are not unique.
"All the sins of the world have been committed in the name of religion," he said.
He has produced several comparative religion programs at the temple this year.
"We've dissected Judaica and Christianity already. I invited the pope but he didn't come," he said, adding that he'd like to explore Buddhism at a future gathering.
Also present to explain the more scholarly aspects of Islam was Abdellah Khidar, imam of the Islamic Society of Monterey County's mosque in Seaside. Khidar described details of the Quran and Islamic practice in Arabic while several others interpreted.
Lisabeth Kaplan, of Carmel Valley, said she enjoyed hearing the scholarly perspective from Khidar. "He's a phenomenal man," she said.
But Kaplan said she also appreciated hearing from Safaa Ibrahim's viewpoint as a practicing Muslim, and especially as a modern woman.
Ibrahim, a modest and young-looking 30-year-old, was suddenly thrust into public life when she took over as director of CAIR in July after being a volunteer for years. Almost immediately, she helped the group coordinate its public response to this summer's London bombings.
At first she didn't like being in the media spotlight, but she soon realized it was part of the job.
Her husband, Hisham Ibrahim, who speaks more Arabic than his American-raised wife, came along Sunday to help interpret Khidar's answers but also to support Safaa's work. He laughed about being described in some news reports as simply "Safaa's husband."
"I'm just the cheerleader," he said.
Hisham said there are three things that should be done to combat those who misinterpret Islam for violent ends. "One is what we're doing here -- to build bridges," he said. The others are to push for better press coverage and to work to "get rid of corrupt governments" that misuse the teachings of Islam.
Safaa Ibrahim met her husband three years ago on a Web site for Muslims serious about marriage. After a few tries, she said, they both knew they found "The One." Soon, they'll celebrate their second wedding anniversary.
Mostly, Ibrahim wants to remind her audiences that Muslim families are also hurt when violent extremists strike.
"We lose our family, too," she said. "Our mothers, our brothers, our sisters. I want people to realize that."
Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or [email protected].