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A Season for Understanding

Observance of Islam's holy period of Ramadan begins Monday with fasting and an emphasis on self-restraint and generosity. In the Southland, it is also a time for some Muslims to share their culture with others. Speakers go to schools and set up exhibits in hopes of toppling old beliefs and misconceptions.


A few days before the Islamic holy season of Ramadan, many of Leah Greenwald's seventh-graders at McFadden Intermediate School in Santa Ana were meeting a real, live Muslim for the first time in their lives.

Maria Khani, a speaker from the Council on Islamic Education, wore a black jacket, a long gray skirt and a silk head scarf--but said that at home she dressed as she pleased. She brought in a Koran, a prayer rug and a small model of a mosque--but also a toy camera, just for fun.

She explained Ramadan's ritual of fasting from dawn to dusk but anchored it in their world: Her boy, she told the class, bought a Nintendo Gameboy with his holiday gift of money.

Ramadan, which begins Monday, is going mainstream as more Muslims like Khani bring lessons about the holiday to schools, libraries and public forums. Their dogged efforts to demystify Islam seem to be paying off: Elected officials are now familiar figures at Ramadan-related events, the U.S. Postal Service recently issued a stamp commemorating the holiday and, perhaps most striking, individual attitudes toward Islam are being transformed.

At McFadden, students shared their images of Muslims before hearing Khani speak: Boring. Strict. "Kind of weird."

Those images changed after Khani's slide presentation, which touched on everything from the Koran to Legoland.

"I think it's kind of cool, how much they do for God, because not everyone does that," said Stephanie Lambert, 12.

"They're proud of their religion," said Dalila Toledo, 12.

"They're nicer than I thought," said Jaclyn Pavan, one of six students who volunteered to try on the samples of Islamic clothing that Khani brought.

Ramadan, one of the pillars of Islam, commemorates the season in which Muslims believe the holy Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It is marked by refraining from food, drink and other sensual pleasures to learn discipline, self-restraint and generosity.

As the fast-growing Muslim community increases its presence and profile, more mosques are using the Ramadan season as a prime time to increase public awareness of their faith. The Council on American-Islamic Relations gives Muslims ideas on how to publicize Ramadan in an annual "Ramadan Publicity Resource Kit," with suggestions on pitching stories, holding open houses, lecturing in the schools and the like.

Hussam Ayloush of the council's Southern California office said news stories about Ramadan in local media have gone from a handful in 1995 to more than 30 last year. He said part of the reason for the sparse coverage had been Muslims themselves: Many distrusted the media and feared to participate in any story that might defame their faith.

But that reluctance seems to have dissipated as Muslims have actively reached out to share their faith.

The Islamic Center of Hawthorne sponsored a community open house, "Understanding Islam," that drew 40 people--ranging from the Hawthorne mayor to police officers--last week. During Ramadan, the center plans to package extra food prepared for weekend iftars, or fast-breaking meals, and distribute it to the area's homeless, according to board Chairman Jawdat Dajani.

At Masjid Omar near downtown Los Angeles, mosque members plan a free community meal nightly, including a Friday halal Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner prepared according to Islamic rules, and speakers on the Koran.

The masjid has worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District to produce a program on Ramadan, which has been broadcast via the district's Channel 58 each holy season for years, said Yahia Abdul-Rahman, the masjid's religious coordinator and chairman of the 60-mosque Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. Along with the video, the masjid has also worked with the district on a lesson plan about Ramadan.

In what is becoming a major Muslim annual bash, the masjid next month plans to sponsor a gala community dinner and program on the Ramadan season's Night of Power, when it is believed the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The program typically draws 2,000 people, including Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

"We're doing this to build bridges with everyone, because we've been so stereotyped by the media," Abdul-Rahman said.

Khani gives similar reasons for quitting her full-time job as a teacher of Arabic and Islamic studies to devote her time as a speaker for the Islamic educational council. She covers 100 miles a day driving from San Diego to Sherman Oaks, speaking to everyone from kindergartners to adults, three to five days a week.

When she first started speaking a few years ago, one student asked to be excused, telling the teacher she feared Khani would bring guns and bombs to school. The incident only redoubled Khani's determination to expand her efforts.

"Kids here in the U.S. need to know the truth about Islam," said Khani, a Syrian native. "When I speak, they find out Muslims can laugh and go to Disneyland."

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