Bridging the gap between Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors

By Heba Abdel-Karim

Heba Abdel-KarimImagine this scenario: You live in the same area with your Minnesotan Muslim neighbor. This person, his actions, beliefs, and practices seem a bit peculiar to you, as you have not encountered many Muslims. All you know about Muslims is what you hear others say, from the media and the like, but they are otherwise unfamiliar.

You wish to get in contact with him or her—even with a simple “hi”—but you may subconsciously have second thoughts because of how Muslims are negatively labeled by others. This, along with some other reasons, makes it seem like the gap between you and your Muslim neighbor is too large to even give it a try.

This takes place a lot nowadays, and even more so ever since 9/11, as Muslims have been negatively portrayed by the media. But something as large as improving relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims, and increasing awareness of Islam, begins by something as small as improving Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors’ relationships with one another.

What many people do not know is that the rules regarding relationships with one’s neighbors is clearly stated in Islam, and is an integral part of a Muslim’s belief.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) spoke about how a Muslim should treat his neighbors in general, be they Muslim or non-Muslim. He stated: “Angel Gabriel kept exhorting me about [obligations towards] the neighbor, so much that I imagined that he might be included as one of the heirs” (compied by Bukhari and Muslim, two very knowledgeable scholars of Islam who worked for many years to gather and record the chain of narratations of the sayings, or hadiths, of the Prophet). It is thus that a Muslim is obligated to treat his neighbor—so that one might think that he is part of the family.

In another instance, the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) spoke to women and said: “O Muslim women! Do not consider your neighbors despicable even though she may send you a piece of a goat’s shank as a present” (Bukhari and Muslim). In this case, the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) is implying that no matter how rude one’s neighbor is, one should always react in a manner that avoids clashes.

In some areas, such as Southern California, Muslims have taken steps to increase awareness of Islam and Muslims in their neighborhoods. An advertising campaign in Los Angeles and Orange County used billboards to help promote good relations with Muslims and their neighbors. The slogans posted on the billboards included major themes of Islam, such as “‘Even a smile is Charity’ —a message from your Muslim neighbor,” “Kindness is a mark of faith,” and “A nice thought is an act of worship.” See more here.

Although Minnesota is considered the “Friendliest State” by the Guinness Book of World Records, there have been, however, some instances of a lack of understanding between non-Muslims and their Muslim neighbors. One such instance includes the vandalizing of Al-Amal School, a private Islamic school in Fridley: Toilet paper was thrown around the bushes and trees a couple weeks after the horrible incidents of 9/11. (Link) More recently, Al-Amal School received offensive faxes that made such statements as saying that the Qur’an was a “terrorist manual.” (Link) In many of such instances, Muslims feel unwelcomed by their fellow Minnesotan neighbors. According to a report done by the Council of American Islamic Relations, this lack of understanding is due, in part, to non-Muslims’ lack of knowledge about Islam and Muslims. But most of these have been dealt with in the correct manner by the Muslim neighbors, many without the use of law enforcement; simply by using the best approach of all: interacting one-on-one with one’s neighbors. And this was the approach that produced the best results: By doing this, the neighbor is better educated about Islam and Muslims and is therefore given an impression about the religion much better than what he had to start with.

In addition to the person-to-person strategy, many organizations in Minnesota, such as the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, have taken steps to initiate interaction between people of various religions, one neighborhood at a time. JRLC holds meetings that enable Muslims and non-Muslims to discuss matters that pertain to both of their needs, showing them that they have many similarities rather than focusing only on the differences. One annual meeting in particular, which usually takes place in March and is called “The Day on the Hill,” allows people of different religious backgrounds to gather together at the RiverCentre and the State Capitol and discuss political issues of concern to Minnesotans with their legislators such as housing, health care, and human rights.

Recently, the Islamic Center of Minnesota became an official member of JRLC, bringing the Muslim community’s voice to Minnesota’s oldest and largest religiously sponsored political-affairs group. Muslims will now join with Jews, Protestants, and Catholics in Minnesota to cooperatively research public-policy questions and jointly make recommendations to the state Legislature. For more information about JRLC and its upcoming events, visit

Reconsider the original scenario: You attend a JRLC meeting at the State Capitol. Looking around, you see people of different religious backgrounds discussing issues of concern to everyone sitting in the room. It gives you a sense of commonality between you and your Muslim neighbor, and makes you feel more comfortable approaching him or her to simply say “hi” or to ask a question about Islam. There finally seems to be a bridge that connects you to your Minnesotan Muslim neighbor, and leaves both of you happier in the sense that you can now work together to reach a common goal.

Heba Abdel-Karim currently resides in Fridley, Minn. and is a student at the University of Minnesota.

4 thoughts on “Bridging the gap between Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors”

  1. I very much appreciate this article. I’ve been reading the site for about 2 weeks and was growing tired of the anti-US government statements, yet informed writing. Your article and the previous article regarding the Sudan incident are written in a much more positive manner that will continue to bring me to this site to learn more of Islam. Thank you.

    On your topic, I previously lived in Maple Grove and had a wonderful Muslim neighbor family who’s kids were the kind that I hope my kids can emulate their behavior. My biggest concern over interacting with my neighbor was my worry of insulting him or his religion, through my base assumptions of a Christian-based American society. I eventually visited their Mosque with them to better understand that their Muslim community was very much similar, and in some ways stronger, than the Catholic community in which I was raised.

  2. I think Wayne raises an interesting point. (Thank you, Wayne!) We Minnesotans, while “nice,” also can be so “nice” (and generally reserved) that we become reluctant to bridge gaps, to ask questions that might be uncomfortable, etc. In the interest of our community and our larger world, we need to push ourselves to do just that. I think it’s terrific that you visited a mosque with your neighbors, Wayne. It makes me wish I were more socially courageous.

  3. Great column Heba, and thanks for mentioning Muslim involvement in the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition.

    The JRLC is a unique organization that believes in partnerships with all the diverse members of our society. Its staff and board are visionary, well-informed, dedicated and hard-working.

    The Islamic Center of Minnesota became a full partner-organization in the JRLC in early 2004. The ICM was an observer-member of the governing board for about four years before that, and prior to that the American Muslim Council, Minnesota chapter (now defunct) was the observer-member of the governing board for about five years.

    Members of the Muslim community regularly participated in the events of the JRLC for at least 10 years prior to that, since the early 1980s.

    The JRLC began in 1972 as a partnership between the Minnesota Council of Churches and the Minnesota Catholic Conference and were soon joined by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

    Since 1995, when the AMC, MN chapter, became an observer-member of the JRLC board, Muslims have taken leading roles in the annual Day on the Hill event (held in March). These roles have included opening prayers, keynote speaker, introductions, issue presentations, moderators, voter district group organizers, and delegation leaders.

    Muslims from the ICM and many other local mosques, Islamic centers and Muslim community organizations have taken part in Day on the Hill and benefited from the opportunities and resources available through this event. The visits to state legislators, in an interfaith group of people of diverse religious backgrounds, just by itself is very impressive to state legislators. They appreciate how people of many different backgrounds can work together and make their voices heard.

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