Hard questions and support were both voiced by non-Muslim visitors at a public open house at the Red Deer Islamic Center.
A “respectful dialogue” was started when about 100 people came through the Deer Park mosque on Sunday. The successful exchange sparked a decision by centre staff to hold monthly Peace Cafes to have an on-going conversation with the community.
“The feedback was very positive” — both from visitors and their Muslim hosts, who answered questions about a variety of topics, said the centre’s media spokesperson Jawed Iqbal.
Muslim integration into Canadian society, responses to terrorism, and other “taboo” topics were discussed because they are on people’s minds, he added.
Members of the centre at 195 Douglas Ave. were hoping to reach area residents who fear Muslims. “To be honest, we want to engage those people, to understand where they are coming from … We might not be able to change minds, but at least it gives us an opportunity to have a dialogue,” said Iqbal.
This second-annual open house at the centre was originally set for this summer, but was moved up after the Jan. 29 shooting at a Quebec City mosque that resulted in six people being killed and 19 injured.
Iqbal said local Muslims wanted to thank the Red Deer community for many expressions of condolence, flowers and cards, and a vigil attended by about 250 people last week to express opposition to extremist violence.
The goal of the open house was to strengthen ties — not only for non-Muslims, but also for Islamic Centre members who feel shy about interacting with people outside their faith. Iqbal said, “They feel (other) people don’t like Muslim people because of some preconceived notions.”
He feels the moderate, inclusive views shared on Sunday made many people realize that the two groups’ value systems are not so far apart.
The same sentiment was expressed Paul Harris, who attended the open house and told his fellow Red Deer city councillors at Monday’s meeting that it was a positive way to promote understanding.
The dialogue will continue at 40-minute Peace Cafe sessions held at the centre each month. Anyone interested can come “sit down with us, have some tea, coffee and cookies and start a conversation … We want to be open about it, and have a frank discussion,” said Iqbal.
The first session will be held at 6:30 p.m. this Friday. The Islamic Centre, which has partnerships with United Churches in Red Deer, Delburne and Lacombe, is open for prayers five times a day — so if even if people can’t make the monthly meetings as posted on the centre’s Facebook page, another time can be arranged to answer questions, said Iqbal.