It was a chilly day for spring; by noon, the sun warmed the air to create a pleasant day to spend outside. The stage was set for an important event, hosted by the Islamic Center of Columbia. The Bible Belt has recently been in focus for modern activists and civil rights leaders due to the surge in hate rhetoric. Almost one year after the Black-Lives-Matter protests began, in July 2016, local Imams of Columbia planned an open house to welcome the non-Muslim neighbors into the Masjid. With the help of Columbia Mayor, Steve Benjamin, the grounds were buzzing with interested and smiling guests who seemed to enjoy the personalized tour of the Masjid. Attendees were asked to register at the front entrance, where they were each greeted by a Muslim. The host Muslim would guide them from booth to booth. These booths were simply tables with posters and information about common questions which non-Muslims typically have.
At the peak of the event, Sheikh Muhammad Adly turned on the microphone. He addressed the Muslims first and told them to be courteous to their guests. He then allowed some time for recitation of the Qur’an and its translation before starting the speeches. After the Sheikh and the local Chaplains spoke, the Mayor was presented with a gift. It was a token of appreciation to the Mayor for his continued efforts in helping the Muslim community. The mayor then spoke to all the attendees and urged the importance of supporting local initiatives. He then thanked the Muslim community for being great hosts and encouraged them to get involved in the city so that their value is recognized by the denizens.
Sheikh Adly was extremely busy the whole time. He seemed to be involved in every aspect of planning that went into this event. It is not often you see an Imam this involved in planning outreach events. Entirely too often, masajid only bring Imams in as speakers. However, it was a refreshing sight to see that the Imam was the one running the show. When I had a chance to talk to him, I asked what his goal was for doing this event. He responded, “We wanted the people to know that they have access to the building at all times and that we are people who they can sit down and talk with, unlike what you see in the media”. “It was also a training for the Muslim community on how to talk to the people and do da’wah”, he added, “It is important that Muslims learn the necessity of da’wah”. This event was planned only two weeks ahead of time; in that short preparation period, there was a large turnout of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
I asked if there was any way that this program could be made bigger or better. “It is not about the size of the event, it is about continuation… sometimes in a smaller scale, you really have a better chance to talk with them”, he said. True enough, it was apparent that the event was well managed and the size was optimal for having engaging discussions with the guests.
I also had a moment to speak with the Mayor, who was also extremely busy meeting guests and talking to the Muslims. He seemed to enjoy the event very much and even noted how good the food was. “I have known of Sheikh Adly for years, but I spent more time with other leaders of the Muslim community here [in Columbia]. I actually worked with Mrs. Adly back in december for an event and talked about coming here to visit”, Mayor Benjamin said. He added, “I think it’s amazing how this was on short notice and yet you see the amazing crowd here. I think this was a wonderful event because it was social as well as educational. When we did our event in December (“Embracing our Muslim Neighbors”) at City Hall, on short notice, it turned out being a standing room only event. The entire chamber was full with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Bahais and even some Wiccans. They were there not only to preach tolerance, but to embrace the Muslim neighbors and their contributions which make the city great. That show of support and this event’s show of support will eventually be like a snowball down a hill; it will continue to bring the goodwill of people together”. When I asked if there was any way Muslims can improve our efforts he said, “Programs like this are always beneficial, but it’s not up to just the Muslims to do this work. I think, it is up to those of us who have Muslim friends to also find ways to open as many doors as possible, because, it is tough when you’re fighting against the microphone of the President of The United States”.
By the end of the event, no one seemed tired or apathetic. Everyone enjoyed the speeches, loved the food and thanked every Muslim they saw. It was a great end to a great day. It was a well planned idea to have the City involved in the program, as it helped to bring more guests. It was the standard that all Masajid should follow on similar events. We hope that this event is the first of many which bolster the spread of tolerance and understanding throughout the nation.