In Brooklyn, Countering Views of Nigerian Muslims

By Samuel Lieberman

The light outside of the Nigerian American Muslim Integrated Community center (NAMIC) is brighter than any other city light.
The president of the center, Shakim Kazeem, 49, said that when they bought the building on Dean Street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the sidewalk just outside was so dark that parents did not let their children walk on that side of the street. Kazeem said that he wanted to make people feel safe. He wanted to show that his center could be a source of comfort for the community. NAMIC houses an upstairs mosque and an airy downstairs recreation area with a cafeteria on the side, red rubber floors and a crooked basketball backboard. On Sundays anyone who wants can come in and try the fried and spicy ground beans. “I want people to see the type of Muslims we are,” said Kazeem. “We work with the community. We participate so people will see that we are not fanatics.” This is a prevailing concern at NAMIC where everyone is quick to educate a newcomer that the violent and extremist group Boko Haram does not represent Islam. However, the greater the amount of violence perpetrated in Nigeria by Boko Haram, whose members killed 2,053 people in the name of Islam in 2014 according to a Human Rights Watch report, the more Kazeem and his colleagues fear their community of Muslims will bear blame and be ostracized.
Misconceptions about Muslims are plentiful. Amina Adekola, 15, was in her 10th grade global class learning about the Boko Haram massacres when another student asked, “Why are all Muslims terrorists?” She said that she wanted to stand up for herself, tell him that she was a Muslim and not a terrorist. But she was embarrassed in the face of what she felt was an overwhelming majority. “About 90 percent of the kids in my class feel that way,” she said. “I wish I did it more; I have to speak up and make more people aware.”
Kazeem said that NAMIC has already suffered because of widespread misunderstanding. Multiple donors suddenly pulled their funding last year for no apparent reason.

He sent letters asking why, fearing that they were reading headlines of Nigerian Muslims razing villages and kidnapping schoolgirls. The funders offered canned explanations about running out of resources.
NAMIC’s members are 80 percent from Lagos. They are, for the most part, not too worried about their families’ well-being. They are from the Yoruba tribe, which is culturally and geographically very different from Boko Haram, whose members are primarily Hausa and from Northern Nigeria. They speak different languages and whereas Hausa tribesmen have established Sharia law in
11 states in the country’s northern region, the Yoruba people are known for their acceptance of both Christians and Muslims. “Misconceptions come from the Muslim community’s failure to open up to their neighbors,” Ade Oluwo, 54, one of the founders of the center, said. “When people don’t know you, that’s when there are misconceptions.” Oluwo said that NAMIC makes a concerted effort to connect with the rest of the Crown Heights community. They invite Community Board 8 to hold meetings in their recreation center. The U.S. Census takers used the center’s red rubber basketball court to gather demographic information from neighborhood residents. Last year, NAMIC even held a joint Christmas party with the local 77th police precinct, Oluwo said.

NAMIC takes its inspiration from local churches.
“Look at them, on the street giving out pamphlets, inviting people to come and see what they do,” Oluwo said. “It is very effective. The more people who know about you, the more know that you are people of peace.” Recently, NAMIC was having a baby shower for one of their members. The pregnant mother-to-be stood in front of the congregation of members and her white-and-green frosted baby shower cake. The group was raucous. Mrs. Shittu, 56, cracked loud jokes while her group of friends, dressed in bright elaborate gowns and sitting almost on top of each other, cackled over the expectant mother’s speech. They said that this was a baby shower in the American style, before the baby is born. “Here we are just living the American life,” Oluwo said. “We want the same things as anyone else. We want our kids to go to good schools, we want our families to have good lives.”

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Posted by on Mar 21 2015. Filed under Community News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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