Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Local Muslims aim to educate public

Monday, July 10, 2006 -
Bangor Daily News

ORONO - The tossing of a frozen pig's head into a Lewiston mosque last week has upset Muslims in northern Maine, the founder of the Islamic Center of Maine reports, even though the modest mosque on Route 2 has never been the target of vandals."After the initial shock," Mahmoud El-Begearmi of Bangor said Saturday, "the discussion centered around how can we help. We seem to be the oldest group in the state, and the other mosques all look up to us for help."El-Begearmi, who has lived in Maine for 26 years, advised leaders at the Lewiston-Auburn Islamic Center to make a concerted effort to educate the community about the tenets of their faith and to invite the public to visit the mosque and attend services. That's the same advice that was offered last week by a Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Muslims living in the United States.El-Begearmi, a native of Egypt, knows how demanding a task that can be. The retired University of Maine Cooperative Extension program educator spent every weekend after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks traveling around the state dispelling what he saw as the myths and misunderstandings about Islam."We consistently advise Muslims the same way," he said Saturday. "The more you open up to the community that you are a part of, the better off this religion will be."The incident, which has drawn international media attention, happened Monday night, July 3, at the Lisbon Street storefront used as a mosque as about 40 men bowed down according to their prayer ritual. After the pig's head rolled in, the men raced outside to look for the perpetrator.Muslims are prohibited from eating pork, and the council contends the act was an insult to Muslims.Brent Matthews, 33, of Lewiston has been charged with the misdemeanor crime of desecrating a church. The Lewiston Police Department referred the case to the Androscoggin County district attorney as well as the state attorney general.Matthews allegedly told police that it was supposed to be "a big joke," Lt. Don Mailhot said.FBI agents have been conferring with police to determine whether federal hate-crime laws were violated, according to Lewiston police.Matthews, who is free on $200 bail, faces up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000 if convicted of the criminal charge. The former Lewiston city employee could be in more trouble if the state decides to prosecute him under Maine's civil rights statute. If found guilty in the civil procedure, he could be fined $5,000 and ordered to stay away from the mosque and the city's Muslim community.Thom Harnett, assistant state attorney general for civil rights, said prosecutors have been fielding many phone calls about the incident."I think there's a great level of upset and not just the Muslim community," he said.Once state prosecutors get the police report, Harnett said, he will try to decide quickly whether to prosecute. "The goal is to make the community feel safe," he said last week.Although he is always aware that he is part of a religious minority in Maine, El-Begearmi said Saturday that he does not feel that he's a target because he is a Muslim.El-Begearmi is recognized throughout the state as a longtime lay leader of the state's growing Muslim population. He helped organize Muslims for weekly prayers at UMaine when he moved to the state in 1980. For more than a decade, the group planned and raised funds to build its own mosque on land near the Route 2 entrance to the university. When the mosque opened in February 2002, the public was invited to see what it looked like inside."We had an open house," El-Begearmi said. "We had people look inside, and they saw there was nothing unusual here. That kept the imaginations of people from going wild."The most common question he's asked isn't about the tenets of Islam but why the building sits at an angle on the lot."I explain that the entire building is directed to Mecca, the direction that we pray," he said. "We felt we could use the building more efficiently if we didn't have to pray at an angle."He advises other Muslims in the state in the post-Sept. 11 world to keep their guard up."You can't assume that every person by nature is hateful," El-Begearmi said. "When people ask me if I've encountered discrimination, I say not really, but every once in a while I run into an idiot - someone who is misinformed."The best way to prevent more incidents such as the one in Lewiston is to dispel the misinformation, he said.Fast factsThe five major teachings, or pillars, of Islam are:. Shahada, belief in and recitation of the profession of faith, "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah.". Salat, prayer offered while facing Mecca five times a day - at sunrise, midday, midafternoon, sunset and before going to bed.. Sawm, fasting during Ramadan, the month when the Quran was revealed to Mohammed.. Zakat, contributing financially to the Muslim community, similar to tithing in some Christian denominations.. Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in each Muslim's lifetime, if physically and financially possible.

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