Sacramento Bee

Published 12:00 am PDT Monday, August 18, 2008

California State Fair: Muslim booth offers answers on Islam

By Jennifer Garza

Cindy Cassidy is the first to admit she knows little about Islam. She has questions, but she's never had the opportunity to ask Muslims about their faith.

Until now.

For the first time since 9/11, visitors to the California State Fair can ask Muslims about Islam. No topic is off-limits, no subject too personal.

Officially, it's called "WhyIslam." Unofficially, it could be called "Ask a Muslim." The booth, which has been set up in Exhibit Hall B, is sponsored by the Sacramento Chapter of Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), which focuses on outreach and education of the faith. Muslim volunteers are on hand to answer questions, pass out brochures and give away Qurans. Since the fair opened Friday, fairgoers have asked about everything from terrorism to what Muslims believe about Jesus.

Sunday, Cassidy had her chance.

"Just out of curiosity – and I don't mean any disrespect," asked Cassidy, who lives in Cool, "but why do you (Muslim women) cover your heads?"

Salihah Bustamam, 25, smiled and answered that it is wrong to think that their religion subjugates women.

"It holds women in high regard," said Bustamam.

According to the WhyIslam Web site, for Muslim women who veil themselves or practice hijab, it represents an act of obedience to God. It also represents a step toward freedom from being judged by their looks rather than their intellect.

After talking at the booth for several minutes, Cassidy left with several brochures, a copy of the Muslim holy book and the satisfaction that her questions had been answered.

"I don't know any Muslims," Cassidy, a Christian, said afterward. "And I can't approach a perfect stranger. This was a great way for me to find out more."

Dialogue between faiths and clearing up misperceptions are two of the goals of WhyIslam, say organizers.

"Problems start with the lack of communication and understanding," said Arshad Khan of the Sacramento ICNA. "We want to show that we are part of this community … and what better way to show that than coming to the State Fair, which gets people of all different backgrounds?"

The smell of Cinnabons fills the hall as visitors walk by the WhyIslam booth, squeezed between a bathroom remodeling exhibit and a skin-care booth on the second floor. Traffic has been steady, if not busy. Sunday morning was slow, but many visitors smiled or said encouraging words as they passed.

"You guys are getting a bad rap," said Al Fink, a retired federal worker from Fremont, as he walked by. Fink later explained that he is Jewish and knows what it's like when people stereotype.

"All they want to do is spread a little knowledge,"
said Fink of the people working in the WhyIslam booth. "Ignorance is dangerous."

Khan and the other volunteers said that visitors have been polite and civil. If someone does challenge them, he said, volunteers have been told not to argue.

California State Fair officials said they have no complaints about the booth and are providing security for the booth like any other exhibit.

"Sacramento is a diverse area, we have a lot of cultures here, and people are used to that," said Norb Bartosik, general manager of the fair.


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