Battle of words

The last thing 18-year-old Springstead High School student Colleen Pulawski expected from a teen-led informational seminar was to have people publicly yell at the guest speakers and disrupt the event.

But among a crowd of roughly 100 that consisted of students, educators and intrigued parents who attended the Islamic Seminar at Springstead Theatre on Friday evening, a handful were also present to shout out against the religion.

“You just offended a whole hell of a lot of us,” a woman yelled after one speaker shared views of the similarities between the Bible and the Quran and how Jesus is perceived by Muslim followers.

“Jesus is our lord and savior,” cried another.

“You’re trying to indoctrinate our kids. We get it,” another woman yelled – this time at a teacher who tried to quell the small crowd of protesters. The outspoken audience member also questioned why a seminar about religion would be allowed at a school.

One man commented the four speakers’ God could no way be the same as his Christian God. After making similar statements, he became angry when event organizers attempted to move on and allow others to ask questions.

The man was then escorted out after yelling back at a student who spoke up that she was ashamed of his behavior at the event.

At one point, Pulawski cried because of the confrontations taking place as the Islamic speakers and one teacher tried to calm those who were being the most confrontational.

“I just felt like people were getting so upset about the speakers being here and made no attempt to listen,” Pulawski said. “It’s upsetting. I just didn’t think people would come here and be hostile or violent, especially for an event that was supposed to help open people’s minds.”

Promoting understanding

In August of 2009, a Springstead student was suspended for threatening a Muslim girl who she believes didn’t stand or say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Kathleen Long, a teacher at Springstead High, said stemming from that incident, which garnered national attention in the media, members in Humanities and Etymology Society within the school decided a seminar was needed to educate the public about the Muslim faith and Islam.

The group invited four speakers: Ghiath Mahmaljy, a doctor in internal medicine; Ibraheem Shakfeh, a calligrapher and student at Florida State University College of Law; Raydanah Atfeh, who teaches Islamic studies in Tampa; and Hassan Sultan, a teacher and graduate from the University of South Florida.

Mahmaljy focused on the similarities and differences between Islam and other religions – particularly that both Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Differences include that while Christians believe Jesus was the son of God, Muslims instead view him as one of God’s messengers.

Atfeh, while wearing a hijab, discussed the misconceptions of how many believe women are treated and pointed out that many of those are due to confusion between the religion and cultural beliefs of different regions in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

But Sultan said no matter what their belief, he asked only that people open their minds and have open dialogue about their differences to understand one another better.

“You don’t have to change who you are or change your religion,” Sultan said. “But think for yourself and do your research.”

Following the seminar and after listening to some of the more welcoming questions and comments to the four speakers, Pulawski said she was pleased that some appeared to have attended to listen and be open about Islam.

“I think there was some progress that was made,” Pulawski said. “At least it was a start.”

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