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Pullman, Moscow interfaith groups find variety of tangible avenues for action in their communities

By Carol Spurling

While S.M. “Ghazi” Ghazanfar of Moscow and Sayed Daoud of Pullman have much in common, the interfaith groups they work with in these neighboring communities have dealt with some differing agendas and dynamics, particularly since 9/11.

Both men are mainstream Muslims and active members of their mosques—the 80-100 member Islamic Center of Moscow and the 100-150 member Pullman Islamic Center.

Both are married and have families. Ghazi is married to Rukhsana Sharif and has three grown children. Sayed is married to Miriam Mohieldin and also has three children, all in college.

Both came to the United States for their college education. Ghazi came from Pakistan in 1958 and worked his way through school at Washington State University. Sayed grew up in Cairo, attended the University of Louisville in Kentucky, taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then came to Pullman 15 years ago.

Both are respected university professors who value working hard and learning. Ghazi recently retired as professor and chair of the economics department at the University of Idaho. Sayed is an associate professor in the department of pharmaceutical sciences at Washington State University.

Both are long-time advocates of peace, diversity and religious tolerance, and both watched in horror and disbelief as the events of 9/11 in 2001 unfolded. They have both worked even harder since then to build bridges of understanding between Muslims and members of other faiths by actively participating in their communities’ interfaith groups.

Sayed’s father, a devout Muslim, wanted him to educate himself about others, so he encouraged Sayed to go out into the world to learn.

Interfaith Dialogue in Pullman
Ghazi Ghazanfar

Ghazi grew up Muslim, but developed a greater consciousness of his belief as he grew intellectually and otherwise. 

“One discovers things later in life after considerable exposure to different traditions,” he said.  “Thus, as one who seems to have evolved as a Muslim intellectually, I am keen to reach out to others who do not share my faith, for there is much to learn.

“I believe that in so many fundamentals, there is far more in common in the three monotheistic traditions than there is that divides us,” Ghazi explained.

Both commented that to be Muslim requires believing in the other two Abrahamaic traditions of Christianity and Judaism.

“That strengthens my commitment to the dialogue,” Sayed said, explaining, “My faith is strengthened by my interactions with people of other faiths.  It’s like living in a garden with flowers of different colors and smell.  In the end, I appreciate the creator of this awesome garden!”

The Moscow Interfaith Dialogue’s 15 members and the Pullman Interfaith Dialogue’s nine members represent different faith traditions—Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Baha’i, Both groups meet regularly to discuss their various viewpoints and commonalities.

Both groups struggle to find tangible ways to accomplish their goals.  Since Sept. 11, 2001,  Ghazi, Sayed and their interfaith groups have had some different challenges to face.

 “Drawn to the mosque on Sept. 11, I found many flowers in front of the doors and a couple of poems written to us. Every member of the interfaith group called me to express their support. This is an example of how wonderful this community is. It was a moving experience and an enormous relief,” Sayed said.

Several weeks later the Pullman mosque hosted an open house. Sayed was astounded when nearly 700 people came, including Washington State University president V. Lane Rawlins, who sat on the crowded floor while Sayed spoke.

“We thought 100 people would come, but the line to the door was out to the street,” he said.

The fall Pullman interfaith potluck was also well attended that October, as Pullman residents expressed their support for the area’s Muslim population.

Ghazi recalls dragging himself to his 9:30 a.m. class on 9/11.  He broke down while talking of the morning catastrophe.  With his students and him overcome with grief and tears, he cancelled the class.  He, too, received some calls from local well-wishers.

A year and a half later, federal agents arrested Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, a University of Idaho Saudi Arabian doctoral student in computer security. The agents claimed that Sami, a devout and well-liked Muslim in the community, channeled funds to terrorist groups through websites that he managed, Ghazi said.

“It was so dramatized. Some university and community officials made statements suggesting that Sami’s arrest meant that he was guilty, and that terrorism was at our door, right here in Moscow. That same sentiment was echoed in Boise,” Ghazi said, “but a year and a half later, Sami was acquitted. It was like witch hunting.”

Sami was separated from his wife and three children during this time.  His family had to return to Saudi Arabia without him. After his acquittal, he was deported.

During Sami’s incarceration, Ghazi saw the same familiar faces at vigils and fund raisers—some faculty, community members and local Muslims, but few university administrators, he noted.

Ghazi felt local leaders’ distancing themselves inhibited a chance to promote pluralism and support the notion that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

To bring a sense of closure and resolution, he would like the some key Moscow groups—the Interfaith Dialogue, Human Rights Commission and University of Idaho—to take a more active role in healing the wounds caused by the incident with Sami.

 He and some other commissioners proposed unsuccessfully last May that the Human Rights Commission ask the City Council to issue a conciliatory statement on the incident.

However, Ghazi was later influential in a decision by Moscow’s mayor to declare October 2005 as “Confluence of Traditions Month”—recognizing that Ramadan, Yom Kippur, All-Saints Day and World Communion Day are all in October.

“Such gestures contribute to a sense of wellbeing and cohesiveness in the community, and convey something positive to Arab-Americans,” Ghazi said. “If we talk about pluralism, and building bridges of tolerance and acceptance, it must be for all.  There must tangible steps to make it real.”

In the same spirit, Palouse Muslims “adopted a highway” area a few years ago and clean it twice a year.

Both Ghazi and Sayed feel the Palouse represents a rather tolerant, welcoming community, although minor aberrations occasionally emerge, and both feel there are additional avenues for action.

Sayed said he personally has never experienced any fear or racially motivated harassment in Pullman. Otherwise, he would never have stayed and raised his family there.

The Pullman Interfaith Dialogue in which he participates has made plans for next semester.

“We meet every month, to talk about our faith and everything that affects the fabric of our society. Through that we support each other,” Sayed said. “Mainly we address social issues. For instance, during Ramadan, fasting makes us sympathize with the hunger of the poor. This year, that evolved into the celebration of the confluence of faiths at our October Interfaith Potluck.”

He also described a discussion the group had about Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion,” and said that they arranged for Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center to speak recently.

“We try to be an educational and social group as well as a religious group to create a positive social atmosphere for the Pullman community,” Sayed said. “It is a community service, to have a group that consciously does these things. This is a great community, but we still need to do more.”

Ghazi remembers his family’s encounter with racial slurs and some social distancing in their early years in Moscow.  In 1998, some anti-Muslim/Arab literature was posted outside his university office, but he dismissed that as isolated incidents, not reflective of the larger community. 

The stickers, quotes, and cartoons he posts on his door and office walls emphasize messages of peace and tolerance.

“Have I done everything possible to leave the world a bit better than what I inherited? If not, I should be embarrassed to die,” says one of his favorite quotes, which he often tells his children.

Recently, the Human Rights Commission established a biennial Ismat Ara and Abdul Mannan Sheikh Family Community Unity Award to honor Moscow citizens who promote community unity, diversity and human rights.  On Nov. 18, Mayor Marshall Comstock presented the award to Ghazi and another human rights activist, Joanne Muneta.

For information call 332-2611.

Carol Spurling is a free-lance writer living in Moscow.

The Fig Tree - © January 2006