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Originally published Saturday, June 25, 2011 at 7:25 PM

Islamic Center barbecue helps ease a difficult week

The Islamic Center of Eastside held its regularly scheduled open house and barbecue Saturday to get to know the neighbors and dispel myths about the religion. Members answered questions about the recent arrests of two suspected terrorists who are Muslims.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Confronting stereotypes is nothing new to Muslims at the Islamic Center of Eastside. It's the very reason they have an open house every few months — to invite in neighbors and "demystify" themselves.

Saturday's scheduled open house came just two days after two Muslim men were arrested in Seattle and accused of planning a terrorist attack on a Seattle military building. Disheartened but expecting questions, presenters at the Islamic Center in Bellevue worked up an extra PowerPoint slide to address terrorism.

"The stereotype is always there," said Bahiyya Hassan, adding that the arrests feel "external" to a congregation more focused on the day-to-day aspects of faith and community. "This was planned a month ago. It doesn't really matter, because we're just hoping we can talk about what Islam is actually about."

A short presentation at the open house reviewed the basic beliefs of Islam, followed by a frank and casual question-and-answer session that covered how Muslims fit prayer into their workday and why they wear hijabs on their heads.

"If I wake up with a bad hair day, actually, it doesn't matter," laughed Leslie Taylor, of Bellevue. "You're not going to know, because I can put this on."

The women met separately from the men in the upstairs of the mosque, chatting and eating barbecue sandwiches and kebabs.

While they find the media's focus on Muslim terrorists puzzling, Muslims at Saturday's event said they also know their faith is misunderstood.

They waited patiently Saturday while non-Muslims unfamiliar with the religion's terminology struggled to find the right way to ask questions. They tried to explain the deep sense of community they feel during prayers and described a God who is compassionate and gracious.

In one exchange, a Muslim woman described the ins and outs of the mosque's weekly prayer service to a visiting Presbyterian, and then asked the woman to describe her church's service.

Several of the visitors Saturday were from the Mormon church next door, which shares a parking lot with the mosque.

"I always like to learn about other cultures," said Bonnie Stowell, who said several Islamic women attended an event this spring at her church.

Some Muslims said they blamed themselves, in part, for the stereotypes about Islam that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Perhaps they didn't do enough to get out into the community before then, they said.

"If you don't know each other, then this gives rise to all these misconceptions," said Zeeshan Baqir. "Nutty people can be any religion."

By hosting regular open houses, he hopes, the mosque can be a resource "whenever some kind of Muslim does something — a nutty Muslim — they can come straight to us and ask us what's going on, and ask us to clarify."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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