These days, it can be hard to find trustworthy information on the internet - especially about sensitive topics, like Islam. That’s why for the past 3 years, one Muslim couple in Jefferson Parish has led a class at their mosque to teach the basics of Islam. The class started as a primer for new Muslims , but over the past year, the hosts have noticed more non-Muslims signing up.
It’s just before 1 o’clock at the Abu Bakr mosque in Jefferson Parish, and it’s time for afternoon prayer. Sunday school has just wrapped up, and parents are arriving to collect their kids, and pray. One man performs the call to prayer at the front of the room. The men gather on the ground floor and line up on their knees, shoulder to shoulder. The women do the same on the balcony above. Everyone is guided through a sequence of postures, and they pray together in silence.
Once it’s over, the kids and their parents go home, And a new group arrives. This is Islam 101 - a free, six-week class for anybody who wants to learn more about the Muslim faith. Today’s the last day of this session, and about 15 students are enjoying a special catered lunch. Jenny Yanez started the course with her husband, and the former mosque Imam Abdul Rahman Bashir. Yanez says people sign up for lots of reasons.
“People come because they have co-workers or family who have accepted Islam and they want to understand them better,” she says. Some are priests or rabbis who want to do an interfaith exchange. “And some people come because they’re afraid of Islam,” remarks Jenny. “I think those are very brave, brave people who come to the mosque.”
Jenny’s husband Anwer Bashi agrees. He says that in today’s political climate, it’s easy to have the wrong impression of Muslims. All you have to do is turn on the TV.
“If every representation that they’ve seen is negative, it’s not anybody’s fault that when they think of Islam, immediately it starts from a negative place,” says Anwer. “That’s just normal, that’s how our brain works.”
That’s why the couple believes this class is so important - people have the chance to read primary sources, visit the mosque, and just -- hang out with muslims.
“It really humanizes Muslims,” says Anwer. “Which, I mean it’s almost sad that we have to say that, but Muslims have been pretty dehumanized.”
Jenny and Anwer say people come to class with all sorts of questions, which they’re happy to field. They break down scary buzzwords like sharia and jihad. Jenny explains that she wears headscarves - not to please her husband, but to please god. And then, there’s the elephant in the room.
“Eventually,” says Jenny, “they come around and they ask us about ISIS and how are we different from them.”
Jenny says, people are usually too shy to ask at first.
“By the time they ask that question they kind of already have enough information to answer for themselves."
Even so, she’s happy to explain the difference.
“The term extremist sounds like something extra,” says Jenny. “So if you’re extremely good you’re extra good. They are not extreme Muslims-- they are deviant.”
Anwer says Muslims are supposed to be charitable, and kind. He says if you want to talk about an extreme Muslim, it wouldn’t look like ISIS.
“For example an extreme Muslim would always take his neighbor’s trash back out from the street so it didn’t get hit by a car.”
Jenny says she sees people really open their minds to the religion, but it’s still sensitive - there are always a few people in each session who don’t want their family or friends knowing they’re coming to the mosque, even just to learn. They ask to stay out of group photos and off social media. Dolcy Smotherman signed up for the course on the mosque’s website. She was just curious.
“I just wanted to kind of see what I wasn’t hearing and seeing on the news,” she says. Her family wasn’t thrilled about it.
“My ex-husband found out and he was like ‘I think you’re joining ISIS.’ My mom was like, “I don’t want you to be on the news as the next suicide bomber,” I mean it’s ridiculous.”
But Dolcy says she’s learned a lot from the courses, and really connects to the faith. She reads the Quran and other Islamic texts.
“I try to pray five times a day, but it’s more of a mindful thing and it keeps me focused and at peace,” says Dolcy. She says she doesn’t know if she’d convert one day, but it’s a possibility. There are a few obstacles she’d find hard to get over.
“I really do like the religion,but it would be hard for me to cover my entire body all the time with the lifestyle I have-- I play soccer.” Dolcy laughs bashfully “ I mean, I could be Muslim in the winter…”
Jenny stresses that the class is not designed to convert anyone. Just give them information. Whether she decides to convert one day or not, Dolcy feels confident she’ll incorporate the teachings from Islam 101 into her life going forward.
“I’m definitely going to live my life more in this path,” she says.