Speaking truth about Islam

Much of the news of late has been upsetting and disturbing, particularly stories of terrorism in Paris and in San Bernardino, Calif.

Late last week, developments out of San Bernardino continued to build, as we learned that the young couple who killed 14 people had help from a neighbor. The neighbor has been charged in the case, and allegedly supplied the assault rifles the couple used.

He too, reports say, was a radical Muslim. And so attention continues to focus on the followers of Islam.

The incidents ignited debate about the faith around the country, including among presidential candidates. The rhetoric has at times been extreme, with Donald Trump, the leader in most of the polls on the Republican side, calling for a plan to keep Muslims from coming to the United States.

And here in Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal insists that the state refuse to accept Syrian refugees, a direct challenge to President Barack Obama’s authority.

At the AJC, it’s been our job to bring you these developments as they happen — at our web sites, AJC.com and MyAJC.com, and in the newspaper.

It’s a big job to keep up with them, but an even bigger job to provide the “real” story — to cut through political bluster, misinformation and rhetoric and provide the facts at hand.

We know that’s why you come to us, so that you can understand what’s going on in the world and make your own judgments about it.

Which brings me to some Atlanta colleagues who are working hard to do much the same thing under challenging circumstances.

Meet Shuaib Hanief, founder of AtlantaMuslim.com. It's a website dedicated to serving and representing Atlanta's Muslim community.

And right now, that’s a tough, big and important job.

Hanief, 38, lives in Lawrenceville with his wife and four children. He’s from India and has lived here for 17 years, working as a consultant.

His mission for the site is to represent all of Atlanta’s Muslims, a diverse group in their ethnicity and religious practices.

As recent news developments unfolded, he asked himself: “How do you respond to this? We have to do something.”

So he and his staff — all volunteers — got to work. And they found local Muslims were anxious to offer their views to the site.

For example, you can find the words of Omar M. Lattouf, a heart surgeon and faculty member at Emory University’s medical school. At AtlantaMuslim.com, he wrote “An Open Letter to Mr. Trump.”

Among his points: “I love America because it gave me the freedom to practice my religion without fear or intimidation, even better than countries that consider themselves ‘protectors of the faith.’”

Hanief said he works hard to make the site a forum, a place where members of the community can share their views.

“The reason it exists is to be a voice,” he said. “They’re looking for a mouthpiece.”

He believes the site must inform Muslims, but also non-Muslims interested in understanding the community.

For example, the site includes information from a full-page ad that ran in the AJC on Dec. 11. The ad, which has garnered positive reactions, was titled, “Georgia Muslims Stand with the San Bernardino Community.” It was signed by about two dozen organizations.

Kareem Al-Mulki, 22, is a recent Emory graduate. The native Atlantan works as an editor on the site and lives in Sandy Springs.

“We are the only open forum for Atlanta Muslims to be heard,” he said.

He is troubled by political rhetoric that focuses on whether Muslims are condemning acts of terror.

“It’s an unfair statement to say Muslims are not denouncing these acts,” he said.

Arshad Anwar, Imam at the Roswell Community mosque, has been a contributor to the site and recently wrote a piece entitled, “What Kids Need to Know About ISIS.”

A Mississippi native who came to Atlanta in 2011, Anwar said he developed the article after talking to Muslim schoolchildren. He wanted kids to be ready for the issue and the questions they might get, and to understand the difficult perceptions they could face in life.

Then, he realized others could benefit from the same information.

“AtlantaMuslim.com has a large readership,” he said. “If you want to get a message out, that’s the place to go.”

Among his messages in the article: ISIS misuses Islam and recruits through social media. The group’s arguments are twisted and conflict with teachings of Muslim scholars and faith leaders.

Like all of us in the news business, those who produce AtlantaMuslim.com are also citizens of their communities. They go about their lives each day with the same concerns most of us have, but now find themselves in the spotlight.

For example, Hanief said that in the days before the San Bernardino killings, he was having a debate with his wife about the need to clean off the deck at their home. (He seemed to see less of a need than she did.)

“I’m living my normal life,” he said. “Some crazy people did something terrible. All of a sudden, it’s my responsibility to talk about it. I have to defend my faith, my existence.”

Al-Mulki makes the point that we all walk common ground, and he wishes more people realized that. He’s as representative of Atlanta as any of us could be, having lived here his whole life.

He has the same issues of fighting traffic, and he’s suffering of late because he’s a Falcons fan.

“Why isn’t being Muslim standard for Atlanta?” he asked. “It’s a melting pot.”