God's name is nearly identical in ancient languages used to write the Koran and Old Testament. Muslims revere Abraham as a prophet and believe in the immaculate conception of Jesus. And the ranks of mainstream Muslims include plenty of soccer moms and sports fans.
The similarities between Muslims and people of other faiths took center stage at a Saturday evening open house held by the South Valley Islamic Community, whose plans to build a mosque in San Martin have stirred up a hornet's nest of anti-Islamic sentiment.
After months of hostile letters to the newspaper - and a growing number of letters defending the group - roughly 200 visitors from as far as Hollister and Santa Clara gathered at the San Martin Lions Club Saturday to learn about Islamic culture and the challenges faced by American Muslims in a post 9-11 world.
"Americans are not discriminating against us because of what they know about us, but because of ignorance," the crowd was told by Maha Elgenaidy, a speaker from the Islamic Networks Group, a nonprofit formed after 9-11 to spread knowledge about Islam to government officials, law enforcement personnel, schoolchildren and other groups.
Elgenaidy explained that Muslims, like their Christian and Jewish peers, greet each other with expressions of peace. Similar to the Judeo-Christian religions, Muslims believe in a single God and high moral character - essentially the Golden Rule of "do unto others," Elgenaidy said. The perceived differences in Islamic culture are often distortions or outright fabrications, Elgenaidy said.
The pink, flowered scarf covering her head, for instance, is not an emblem of female oppression but one of liberation, Elgenaidy said, explaining that Muslim women cover their hair and bodies so that they are judged by their intellect and character rather than their sexuality.
The word "jihad," meanwhile, is another staple of Islamic culture that has been distorted by media in both the East and West, she said. Violent Islamic fanatics have "hijacked" the word, which in its truest form represents the internal struggle of every Muslim to live a life of purity and high moral character. In mainstream Islam, she said, the word also describes selfless actions such as charity or the prevention of abuse or violence.
"Osama Bin Laden to me is like David Koresh or the Davidians," she said, referring to the cult leader and his followers who died in an FBI raid in 1993. "He has nothing to do with my religion."
The evening, which included a Muslim prayer and several other presentations, was far from gloom and doom.
"As you can see by looking around the room, Muslims come in all shapes and sizes," joked Athar Siddiqee, a Bay Area representative from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national civil rights watchdog and advocacy group for Muslims in North America.
Siddiqee, an American-born Muslim who works as a software instructor, said he spends his days fretting about his kids' education and whether quarterback Alex Smith can resuscitate the San Francisco 49ers.
"These are the things that keep me up at night," he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Those comments came after he recited a list of recent hate crimes directed against Bay Area Muslims. The list includes arson at an Antioch mosque and a Sikh man in Santa Clara who was stabbed in the neck because of his Middle Eastern garb (the perpetrator was a neighbor who said he feared the man was a terrorist).
In 2006, Siddiqee said that CAIR received nearly 2,500 civil rights complaints, with more than a quarter of them from California. The figure represents a jump of roughly 500 from the year before. (READ MORE)