Pittsburgh-area Muslims aim to quell fear, hate; pray for victims of Christchurch, Tree of Life

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Abdul Malik Mujahid visited the Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh’s mosque in Richland Township for the first time Friday.

Mujahid is an American Muslim imam and nonprofit leader based in Chicago. He was asked to deliver a sermon addressing the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that killed 49 Muslims and injured more than 20 others the day before.


But first, Mujahid decided to stop and pay his respects at Tree of Life, the synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood where a mass shooter killed 11 people and injured seven others in late October.


“I stood there and whispered as to a living person … praying for them, their safety, and praying for us, and our safety,” Mujahid told an audience of more than 100 Muslims and community members who attended the Friday afternoon service at the MAP mosque.


He emphasized that in both tragedies, the shooters shared a violent ideology of hatred “for the other.”


“Someone who could not control his hate killed 49 human beings,” Mujahid said. “… The motivation was hate against Muslims, or Islamaphobia. The motivation of the killer in Pittsburgh was anti-Semitism, another form of hate. But the common thing is hate.”


During the roughly 90-minute service, Mujahid called on Muslims and people of all faiths to work together to combat hate, fear and anger, and bolster efforts to promote love, respect and understanding.


“Hate does not have specific religion or a specific ideology,” Mujahid said. “And human beings, all human beings, have good and evil in us. And when we encourage good with each other, more love and more goodness comes out.”


The imam emphasized the need for better communication and cultivating relationships with people of differing backgrounds and beliefs, whether via religious groups, business networking, family activities or one-on-one conversations.


“We as Muslims need to become a little bit more engaged, which we are, in the communities that we live in, that we work in, that we serve,” said MAP member Zulfiqar Ahmed, 50, of Richland, who works in corporate retail. “People need to walk away from meeting with us without having the fear of Islamaphobia.”


Ahmed is a native of Pakistan who’s been a U.S. citizen for 40 years. He has a 7-year-old daughter and has worked alongside Jewish members of the congregations attacked during worship services at the Tree of Life.


He laments when people wrongfully assume that Muslims are not “true Americans,” or that American Muslims seek to impose their beliefs on others. When Ahmed moved from New Jersey to Western Pennsylvania about 10 years ago, he was asked by his workplace if he could go by “Z” rather than his given first name.


“People genuinely don’t like change. … But when you look at the United States of America, we are a melting pot of the entire world. So we’re part of every human from everywhere, and we’re not going to change anyone’s culture or their way of life,” Ahmed said. “Islam means peace, and whatever interpretation has been out there, I think we will change that slowly but surely as people learn more about Islam.”


Gesturing toward the several dozen men, women and children praying somberly Friday at the mosque, Ahmed said, “The majority of people that you see in here, we’re all Americans. Our children are born here, they’re being raised here. They don’t know any other country that they call home. This is home for us.”


In recent years, religious leaders spanning a wide range of faiths have gotten increasingly vocal and proactive in their support for the Muslim community. They’re working to educate the American public about Islam and to reshape national conversations regarding religion, refugees and terrorism.


“Right now, neighbors are coming forward and connecting in love,” Mujahid said, “and that humanity is the one which will take us forward.”


Local efforts span formal classes, leadership training, prayer vigils, joint service projects, tours at places of worship and interfaith prayer groups that discuss similarities and differences over coffee.


Al-Nur Mosque in Wilkinsburg collaborates with nearby Christian churches and schools and invites the public to open houses.


The South Side’s Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community works with the Turkish Cultural Center in Green Tree to provide emergency food programs.


MAP is planning an upcoming pre-Mother’s Day tea with the women at a nearby Christian church, since Muslim women will be fasting during Ramadan on the official holiday in May.


“I agree that we have to be more involved in the community,” said Shahbaz Humayun, 43, of Marshall Township, a vice president of finances systems operations at BNY Mellon. “We try to get out the message that Islam is a religion of peace.”


As Friday’s MAP service came to an end, a Richland parent activist who is not a member there arrived at the mosque with a platter full of cookies and baked goods.


“After hearing the news (of the Christchurch shooting), I thought the nice thing to do would be to come see one of my neighbors in the area and bring them some cookies and just say that we stand with you, we see you and we don’t tolerate hate, we don’t tolerate the gun violence,” ” said Rosie O’Grady Ravish, a volunteer with the advocacy group Moms Demand Action.


“We are so divided. We jump to conclusions about other people without really getting to know them. We can’t do this. We can’t continue to live like this,” O’Grady Ravish said. “We have to take our differences and make the most of them for a better world for our kids.”


Muslim treatment in China


Mujahid is president of SoundVision, a Chicago-based nonprofit focused on fostering understanding through communication, and chair of the Parliament of World Religions, which strives to foster harmony among religious groups and spiritual communities.


On Friday night, Mujahid delivered a scheduled presentation at the MAP mosque about human rights violations impacting minority Muslims in China — including more than 1 million Muslims being detained in so-called “re-education camps” in which families are separated and children are taken to orphanages and raised to be “anti-Muslim communists.”


China’s indigenous Uyghur Muslims also are confronting rampant government surveillance of their phones and cars, forced labor, confiscation of farmland and property and bans on language education and cultural celebrations.


Chinese officials have defended the detention centers and extreme measures as necessary to reduce threats of Islamist militancy.


Where there’s an influx of misinformation or the “absence of human connection, hate comes out,” Mujahid said.


“Hate is rising, so people of love must rise together, hand in hand, in common humanity,” he said.


Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter .