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Exchange students try to turn the tide on misperceptions of Islam

Aaron Collins, Fikri Rahmat, Elshan Mirzazade and introducer John Minge, left to right, spoke at the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum on Sunday to shed light on the teachings and practices of Islam. Marie Nitke/FOCUS

The two foreign exchange students who gained national attention for defending their Muslim faith against a guest speaker at a Perham church are now on a mission to set the record straight on what they say is a sometimes misunderstood and misrepresented religion.

Fikri Rahmat and Elshan Mirzazade have led a few discussions about their faith and culture over the last week, including a presentation at M State-Wadena last Wednesday, one at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center on Saturday, and another at the In Their Own Words Veterans Museum in Perham on Sunday.

The New York Mills and Perham discussions also included input from a guest speaker – Aaron Collins of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Islamic advocacy group Building Blocks.

The purpose of the discussions was to promote goodwill and inform the public about Islam, a religion they referred to as “the peaceful way.”

In March, Rahmat, 16, and Mirzazade, 18, were asked to leave the Northwoods Assembly of God Church after confronting guest speaker Walid Shoebat, a Muslim-turned-Christian, over what the boys say were distortions about Islam. News of the incident caught the attention of advocacy groups and interested individuals throughout Minnesota and beyond.

Now the two students, studying in Perham this year through a foreign exchange program, are hoping to shed light on the religious practices of Islam, as well as their home countries and culture. Rahmat is from Indonesia, while Mirzazade is from Azerbaijan.

They, along with Collins, told a group of about 30 people gathered at ITOW on Sunday that Islam is not a religion to be feared. Instead, they said Islam is a faith and way of life that literally means “peace through submission to God.”

Like Christianity, Islam is a monotheistic and Abrahamic religion, explained Collins; Muslims worship God, and follow the teachings of Muhammad, who is believed to be the last prophet.

Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with more than 1.5 billion followers.

Collins said devout Muslims have a deep faith, pray five times a day, give to charity, fast as a way to get closer to God, and make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in their lifetimes. They believe the Quran is a holy book that contains the unaltered and direct words of God.

During their Sunday presentation, Collins, Rahmat and Mirzazade all acknowledged the common association of Muslims with terrorism in America, and cautioned those in attendance from judging all Muslims based on the actions of a few.

“Let’s learn first, before we have prejudice,” Mirzazade said.

The overriding theme of a question-and-answer session at the end of the presentation was that of Islam’s connection to terrorist groups and oppressive regimes like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah.

The speakers countered with the idea that the beliefs and actions of some radical Muslims do not represent the majority of Muslims. That assumption would be as inaccurate as the assumption that radical Christians reflect all Christians, or that radicals from any religion reflect the majority of that religion, they said. According to Collins, acts of terrorism are a contradiction to what the Quran teaches.

“Islam is a way of life sent by God,” said Collins. “Radical Islam is man-made.”

“Unfortunately, there are bad people…no matter where you live,” Mirzazade said. Seeing Muslims “doing bad things,” then seeing those stories picked up by the media and “people thinking that’s what all Muslims do,” he added, “breaks my heart.”

In his home country of Azerbaijan, Mirzazade said Muslims coexist peacefully alongside followers of many different faiths.

“Me and you, and everybody here, we want to lead our lives and be successful,” he told the Perham audience. “That’s true everywhere.”

Rahmat said the same of Indonesia, where a diverse population inhabits the country’s 17,500 islands. Various religions are practiced, and well over 500 languages are spoken there – Rahmat grew up speaking four different languages just within his own family.

When asked how they handle situations where they’re being judged unfairly for their religion or culture, Mirzazade and Rahmat gave similar answers.

Mirzazade said Islam teaches him to be merciful and forgiving. Instead of getting angry with someone, he’ll offer a hug and say “Peace be unto you.”

Rahmat simply said, “If God can forgive, so can we.”

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their young son and daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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