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Balancing the Books

The flow of information is what drives Shabbir Mansuri of Fountain Valley. His Islamic education center promotes accurate treatment of Muslims in school texts.

July 21, 1996|BRAD BONHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bomb threat was bad enough, in the call-the-FBI category of scariness.

Switching on the message machine at his Council on Islamic Education, Shabbir Mansuri learned that his office, which shares a building with preschools in a quiet residential section of Fountain Valley, was to be blown up.

But what got under Mansuri's skin in a more lasting way, in those tense 24 hours after a federal building was bombed in Oklahoma City in 1995, was not the handful of overtly insulting calls from people erroneously blaming Muslims for the tragedy. It was his conversation with a Santa Ana woman.

"She called and said, 'Do you take Jesus as your savior?' I said, 'I'm afraid no. I don't,' " said Mansuri, 51, a native of India. "Then she said, 'Well, you should pack up and leave.'

"She was telling me that Muslims are enemies of Christians. It was the first time in 25 years of living in the United States that I didn't feel welcome."

Mansuri, by nature and profession a diplomatic man, is quick to add that, when the suspects in the Oklahoma bombing were revealed to be U.S. Army veterans, something happened that renewed his faith in Americans.

"Would you believe that 48 hours later I received more phone calls of apology? 'We apologize to you for making remarks,' they said. Or, 'We apologize on behalf of those who may have made [those] remarks.' At least a dozen calls."

To Mansuri's way of thinking, the conciliatory phone calls reflected a distinct American virtue: the free flow of information. These callers had heard that Muslims were not to blame, and they acted on their knowledge.

Information drives Mansuri and his Islamic education center, a 6-year-old nonprofit group dedicated to promoting informed treatment of Muslims in the media and in school textbooks.

The council's mission is to provide textbook publishers with access to experts on Islam, who review textbook manuscripts, lead teacher workshops and prepare study guides.

Mansuri deals daily with misinformation about Islam: that it is anti-West; that it rejects the philosophy of Jesus; that it is mostly practiced by Arabs. A 1993 Los Angeles Times poll found that three in 10 Americans believe that the religion itself poses a threat to U.S. security.

Contrary to stereotypes, most Muslims are not Arab and do not live in the Middle East, Mansuri says. The largest concentration of Muslims is in Indonesia, and 5 million live in the U.S., including about 100,000 in Orange County, according to local Islamic leaders.

Distortions about the beliefs of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims arise mostly through misunderstanding but sometimes from bias, says Khalid Y. Blankinship, an associate professor of religion at Temple University in Philadelphia and one of the council's 16 affiliated scholars.

"We believe that a tolerant America people will arise out of [the elimination of stereotyping]; we're not interested in pushing [a Muslim] agenda," Blankinship says. "And Brother Shabbir is the appropriate person for the task--he's personable, diplomatic, soft-spoken and warm-hearted."

When Mansuri, who lives in Fountain Valley with his wife and three daughters, is not organizing a junior high school student speakers bureau or holding workshops for state educators and publishers, he is often in Sacramento meeting with education officials or working on anti-bias committees.

It is work that suits the earnest Mansuri, who says his last vacation was five years ago.

The second of five boys, Mansuri had a studious nature that caught the attention and fired the imagination of his father.

"I clearly remember the first time my father took me to first grade," Mansuri says. "He told the teacher, 'You need to pay extra attention to this son of mine, because someday he's going to go to the United States.' "

Abdul Rehman Mansuri, a strong-willed real estate developer in Ahmedabad, Gujarat state, forced his son to forsake tea in favor of coffee--the supposed beverage of Americans. Mansuri was also told to read American novels to practice his English.

"I kept asking my father, 'Why would I want to go to the U.S.?' " Mansuri says. "He gave me two reasons, which became the pillars for my mode of thinking. One is the freedom. The second is: You have access to information. That has driven me."

And the young Mansuri had no friends, because his father made him study with elders while his peers played outside. He says his first friend, whom he met while at M.G. Science College in India at age 20, was more than twice his age.

But if education was forced down his throat, it was swallowed with little protest. Mansuri spent decades reading at least seven hours daily. He speaks Urdu, Hindi, English, his home-state language of Gujarati, and some Persian and Arabic.

*

What does he read for pleasure? Mansuri says, "Reading is pleasure," although his focus--educational theory--might sound dull to most.

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