Attendees express broad range of opinions
By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — A near capacity crowd squeezed into the Hub City Ballroom at Marshfield’s Holiday Inn Conference Center on Saturday, April 23, pursuing common goals of education and understanding.
Dr. Asif Hussain, president of the Islamic Society of Central Wisconsin, said the purpose of the event was to counteract the current mood towards and perception of Muslims.
“With (the) current global circumstances and whatever is happening, there is a lot of Islamophobia. There’s a lot of fear about Islam and Muslims. We feel that we need to educate masses to present a true picture of Islam,” Hussain said. He later added, “We want to alleviate that fear, and we want to fill it with more knowledge and first-hand experience with (the) Muslim community.”
Dr. Sabeel Ahmed from nonprofit organization Gain Peace, which seeks to educate people about Islam, gave a lecture detailing beliefs of the religion and misconceptions about Islam. A question and answer session followed his lecture.
Ahmed referenced American presidential politics in saying that some candidates frame Muslims as “others” or that they “are to be feared.” Thousands of Muslims, Ahmed noted, serve in the United States Armed Forces.
“(These Muslims are) willing to die for the freedom of the United States of America, so it’s very important for us … not just to know this but to correct the landscape, which is out there, for instilling this fear, discrimination, and hatred of Islam and Muslims.”
While discussing the topic of violent extremism and terrorism, Ahmed said in a population of about 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide, there are “the good apples and the bad apples.” He referred to Muslims in the United States as “a model community.”
According to a January Pew Research Center report, about 3.3 million Muslims lived in the United States in 2015. A 2015 report from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security said, “Eighty-one Muslim-Americans were associated with violent extremist plots in 2015, the highest annual total since 9/11.” Those 81 represent about 0.0025 percent of the Muslim-American population.
“We know that even one act of terrorism is too many. Even one loss of life is too many. Even one shedding of blood is too many, too much,” Ahmed said.
John Vaudreuil, the United States attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, spoke briefly at the event and applauded the audience for attending.
“I am proud to be from Wisconsin because you have taken time on this beautiful April afternoon to come here to learn,” Vaudreuil said. “Our enemies aren’t ISIL. Our enemies aren’t our neighbors. Our enemies are fear and confusion and anger.”
Ahmed closed his remarks urging the audience to work together.
“When we join our resources, join our potential, and join our wonderful ways, we could make societies, which are based upon morality, justice, equality, and peace for all,” he said.
Event attendees weigh in
Attendee James Degenhardt said prior to Ahmed’s lecture that he was curious to find out more about Islam.
“My opinion is all religions are the same. They believe in the same person upstairs. They call it a different name. That’s all it is,” Degenhardt said. He said individuals who carry out violent acts in the name of Islam were the minority and were “not going by the Quran. If they read the Quran, they’ll find out that what they’re doing is against the Quran.”
Deborah Olson said she knew little about Islam and sought to learn more. She said the prevalence of Islam in American political discourse was “a very big reason” she attended the event.
“What’s in the media is just a very small percentage of what the real story is,” Olson said when asked what she took from the event. “There’s bad apples everywhere. … Every religion has got somebody that’s not right.”
Chris Kensel said he is a Christian and was curious to learn more about Islam but thought the presentation by Ahmed was not objective.
“I guess I’m just real skeptical because I do feel they’re really slanting it towards what they want it to say rather than what we’re seeing in the world. And he (Ahmed) can talk about the media portraying things, but it’s still happening, and I just feel like he’s not addressing what we’re seeing every single day.”
Kensel added that he did not know enough about Islam to assign blame to the faith for extremism but that he wanted the Muslim community to more strongly condemn acts of terrorism carried out by those purporting to be Muslims. Kensel said that every religious group in the United States should be treated equally.
When asked about republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s statements about banning Muslims from entering the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” Kensel said, “I wouldn’t say you don’t let anybody in of any religion, race, or anything else. That’s totally against what our country’s founded on, but I have no problem with doing some due diligence to make sure the people we’re letting in are the right people to let in.”
Russell and Marsha Draeger are Christians and interpret the Bible to be literally true. Russell Draeger said he felt Islam “clashes with Christianity.” Islam does not view Jesus Christ as the son of God but rather a prophet.
Russell Draeger said he is more concerned with Islamic teachings contradicting the Bible than he is about Islam’s relation to violent extremism. The Draegers said that they believed, as a matter of free speech, all religions should be allowed to be discussed in public schools.
Marsha Draeger said she and Russell believe in “treating people peacefully, not violently, even if we disagree with them. … The Constitution protects all religion.”