Editor's note: See also Demand Soared for Speakers on Islam after 9/11.
A Fridley-based organization has received a rare honor as it prepares to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its founding,
Islamic Resource Group (IRG) won a special recognition award in May honoring its mission of building respect for human rights.
The award, which isn't given every year, came from Advocates for Human Rights (AHR), a group based in Minneapolis that bills itself as the largest volunteer-based human rights organization in the Midwest.
Every individual in the community should be treated with respect and without discrimination, said AHR Executive Director Robin Phillips in praising IRG.
“They have done a great thing in our community in making sure human rights are respected for Muslims in our community,” Phillips said. “They’re a really positive force in our community.”
IRG was founded in July 2001 as an educational-outreach organization seeking to build bridges of understanding between Muslims and people of other faiths or no faiths, said Zafar Siddiqui, co-founder and president of IRG.
IRG consists of trained speakers who are invited to give educational presentations to local businesses, law enforcement agencies, schools, community centers, churches, synagogues, media outlets, and colleges and universities.
Most presentations are requested by community organizations through IRG’s online request form. The nonprofit has given about 2,700 presentations over the past decade, reaching more than 100,000 people in Minnesota, Siddiqui said.
“People tell us, ‘All my education about Islam has been through the TV, and I never met a Muslim in my life,’” Siddiqui said. “People are really curious to learn who are Muslims and what is Islam.”
Impact in Fridley
Locally, IRG teaches a free class at the twice a year called Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbor. The group gave another free presentation, Women in Islam, Tuesday at the center with six Fridley residents in the audience.
“It’s a lot easier for people to hear about Islam from people who actually practice the religion,” said Imani Jaafar-Mohammad, an IRG speaker since 2002. “It’s important to hear about Islam from someone who knows the faith because they are living it.”
During the early days of the organization’s work, in 2002, IRG did educational presentations for the Fridley Police Department, and .
“When you look at the media coverage of Islam and what people learn in public schools, there’s not a whole lot of information about what Muslims actually believe,” Jaafar-Mohammad said. “Things aren’t covered in a way that answers people’s questions.”
“For example, if there was a shooting in Minneapolis, you wouldn’t see the headline say, ‘Christian Man Involved in Shooting,” said Jaafar-Mohammad. “But you might see that for a Muslim man. There’s not a lot of explanation in the media about the actual belief system. It’s important to get that information out there so people can make decisions on their own.”
People who have attended IRG events appreciate the fair and balanced presentations from IRG, Jaafar-Mohammad said.
“It’s not about having people agree with (IRG speakers),” she said. “It’s giving them information in an almost third-person kind of way.”
The group is trained by Islamic Network Group, a nationwide organization, to “adopt an objective way of educating people about the religion without imposing our views,” Siddiqui said. All IRG speakers go through a five-step certification process that includes taking a test and shadowing a more veteran speaker.
“We have great respect for all the people in that organization,” Phillips said.
Advocates for Human Rights has worked with IRG on and off since IRG started, mainly consulting with them about what’s happening in the Muslim community, Phillips said.
“One priority for us is dispelling myths about the immigrant community and people perceived to be Muslim after 9/11,” Phillips said. “We’re very concerned that these myths be dispelled.”
Phillips said it is especially imperative to get the message across with the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11 later this year.
“There are a whole range of views of Islam, but none of them involve terrorism,” Phillips said. “The criminal behavior that some people have done means there is something else wrong with them---it isn’t about Islam.”
This summer, IRG will celebrate its own 10th anniversary. The group’s work soon multiplied in the days after 9/11.
“We were an informal group before we registered as a nonprofit,” Siddiqui said. “Then, unfortunately 9/11 happened and we were doing 25 presentations per week.”
Phillips said it is an honor to work with an organization like IRG.
“We thought the award was especially appropriate in their 10th anniversary year and the 10th anniversary of 9/11—that the public is focused on not buying into inappropriate myths, and instead focus on the contributions of Muslims in the U.S.,” Phillips said.
As an advocacy organization, AHR works to make sure the community is safe for everyone, including Muslims. IRG works to educate the community about the truth about how Muslims live their lives.
“The idea is that we want our community to be welcoming to people who live here,” Phillips said.
IRG speakers vary in age, ethnicity, profession and background. Each presentation starts with an introduction to the basic belief system of Islam and is tailored to the specific audience.
For a presentation to a school or school district with an audience of staff and teachers, speakers would cover the issue of some prayer times falling during school hours and how to handle it when a student is fasting for the month of Ramadan, Siddiqui said.
They would also educate the staff about how to interact with Muslim parents. Some Muslims do not shake hands or make long eye-contact with the opposite sex, Siddiqui said.
“It all depends on how people practice the religion. Some people may do it and some people may not,” Siddiqui said. “It comes down to an individual’s choice. Our goal is to show the diversity of Muslims. There is a tendency to stereotype as if they are all the same, but that is not true.”
The Future of IRG
In planning for the next 10 years of the Fridley-based nonprofit, Siddiqui said he hopes to improve marketing for IRG, get more youth involved and use social media to its full potential.
The IRG board also hopes to conduct long-distance education through the Web, he said.
“We get requests from people five or six hours away from the Twin Cities,” Siddiqui said. Although speakers will go as far as Mankato or Duluth to present, it would be nice to set up a way to have an electronic platform, he said.
IRG will also continue working with AHR.
“They really exemplify our mission of respecting human rights,” Phillips said. “We want to make sure our community knows about them so, collectively, we can honor them for all their work.”