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SAN JOSE — Maha ElGenaidi wants to put a human face on Islam.
“Muslims that are…guess what…exactly like you,” says ElGenaidi, president and CEO of Islamic Networks Group.
Since 1993, the group has worked to educate members of the community, law enforcement agents, corporations and health-care providers about Islam. Using presentations of varying lengths, ElGenaidi and 20 local speakers make rounds to promote cultural and religious understanding.
“We started at the tail end of the first Gulf War,” said ElGenaidi, sitting in her San Jose office.
“At the time, we noticed verbiage in the media that alarmed us. … It was associating Islam with pejorative terms such as ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism.'”
The initial plan began in February 1993, when ING was started with the name Bay Area Media Watch. Monitoring local media, the original plan for the organization was to build an elaborate network that would confront the media about their inaccurate portrayals of Muslims, ElGenaidi said.
“Six months into it, we realized we had the wrong approach,” ElGenaidi said. “We needed to change the direction of what we were doing and offer media agencies suggestions instead of demands.”
After changing the name of the organization to ING, ElGenaidi and the other board members began giving feedback, resources and editorial policy guidelines that would explain, among other things, how certain word usage could be harmful.
“We wanted to take a proactive approach, one that would show the impact of stereotypes on women and children. Beating people in the head is not an effective way to see change. We weren’t interested in motivating them with fear. We wanted to let them know that they are impacting the quality of life of Muslims; that people are being discriminated against based on what they convey,” ElGenaidi said.
Guidelines and considerations soon turned into meetings, and meetings turned into factual, interactive presentations about the faith that included time for dialogue. In 1994 and 1995, ElGenaidi and other ING representatives visited 40 to 50 Bay Area media agencies.
“We had half-hour meetings that turned into two-hour-long meetings. In all cases, this was the first time these people sat down and had a meeting with Muslims.”
ElGenaidi went from local news stations to The New York Times, also making visits to The Wall Street Journal, Time and Newsweek, among others.
“I mean, I can give you a book about Islam, but it won’t be like sitting down with tea and discussing it. Content is one thing, but nothing replaces human contact,” ElGenaidi said, calling the discussions “remarkable.”
Most important for ElGenaidi is the neutrality of her presentations — she’s not interested in converting people to Islam, and this isn’t an act of worship for her or any of the ING speakers. ElGenaidi wants to “de-mystify” aspects of the religion and encourage others to embrace religious pluralism.
“We wanted to use a conversation model, an inclusive one with facts — one that would show that we are all different, but we have many things in common,” ElGenaidi said.
Crafting a variety of presentations, ING speakers who passed mandatory First Amendment training and a two-week specialized certification course began to lecture in classrooms, police stations, corporate sites and health care facilities.
“Our speakers are like professors of world religion — informing, not imposing,” ElGenaidi said.
The presentations, which were updated recently, use colorful PowerPoint slides that focus on everything from statistics and history to addressing stereotypes.
“We want to present Islam in the context of America’s religious pluralism,” ElGenaidi said.
Fremont Police Chief Craig Steckler invites ING speakers to come and lecture every time new hires undergo cultural sensitivity training.
“We started doing this several years ago, and it is important that (officers) understand all cultures in order to better help those we serve. For example, we ask our officers to take off their shoes when entering a house of worship,” Steckler said.
On Oct. 10, ElGenaidi went to lecture at the Milpitas Police Department, where she was well-received during eight rounds of presentations organized by Sgt. Steve Petrakovitz, who is in charge of the station’s training unit.
“I personally learned so much from Ms. ElGenaidi — for example, how to address or ask for a leader of a mosque. We also learned a lot about hijab issues — why it is worn and what it means,” Petrakovitz said.
“The presentations were fascinating, and I received positive, unsolicited feedback from the officers. Every agency should have speakers visit, because the more you know, the more you can relate to those you serve.”
Ameena Jandali of El Cerrito, ING speaker and vice president, goes “everywhere, every day,” making the rounds to local schools, corporations, law enforcement agencies and health-care agencies from Sonoma to Oakland.
“Cultural competency is the best tool for you and your client to benefit from. It allows your job, whatever it is, to be done smoother,” Jandali said.
“And people want to know, and their general awareness has increased tremendously from what it was years ago. They want to know what they need to know to help them do well at their job. The stereotypes are there, and (Islam) doesn’t ever get less timely.”
Now that ING has affiliates in 20 states, Canada and the United Kingdom, ElGenaidi hopes to broaden her presentations to include interfaith panels. Already working with the Jewish Community Relations Council in the Bay Area, she hopes to “build bridges” with other groups to introduce even more speakers at ING presentations.
“We want to focus on our shared humanity,” ElGenaidi said.
“We want to be able to discuss the value of faith alongside such topics of fundamentalism and things like traditional roles of women. We want, ultimately, to model conversation around getting along. We have far more in common than we think — and can you imagine the power of that?”
For more information or to request a speaker, visit https://ing.org
Staff writer Eleni Economides can be reached at (510) 353-7006 or [email protected]