It's a busy Saturday at Willowbrook Mall, and shoppers walking pastFilali are greeted by a colorful display of Islamic images erected hoursearlier. Some walk by without a glance. Others stop and stare beforemoving on. Still others venture up to pose questions.
Filali and his fellow Muslims have come prepared. A table is stockedwith fliers and books. A video is playing. And by the end of the day,they have distributed some 40 Korans and chatted with dozens of peopleabout Islam.
"A Muslim means one who submits to the will of God," Filali tells twoyoung women who have stopped in front of the table.
They nod and listen politely as he talks about his religion.
"Just as you need instructions for operating a VCR or a television, youalso need instruction for life," said Filali, a Moroccan native and aClifton resident. "Islam is about learning righteousness toward Allah,toward yourself, and to others."
The women eventually say their goodbyes and head for the food court.
Frustrated by media coverage they believe portrays Muslims asextremists, New Jersey Muslims are taking their faith directly to thepeople. Visiting shopping malls around the state, they aim to teach thepublic about a world religion that is just beginning to assert itspresence on American soil.
"You have to address the people where they will be," says Filali, anoffice manager for a pediatrician. "If it's in the field, so be it. If it's in the mall, so be it. We're not opposed to consumerism, as longas people are not enslaved by consumerism."
Though shopping malls have long provided floor space for non-profitgroups, Muslims have traditionally shied away from such an approach. Now, however, Muslims nationwide are forming advocacy groups, joininginterfaith dialogues, and seeking a more visible and larger role inAmerican public life. Setting up shop at the mall seemed like the nextlogical step, said Roxanne Dworak-Filali, Mohamed's wife.
"It's a very non-threatening way of telling people who we are," saidDworak-Filali, a Passaic native who converted to Islam at the age of 31.
"We're human beings just like you. And we have values just like you."The group, most of them volunteers with the Islamic Circle of NorthAmerica, have visited about five malls in the last eight months. Theyplan to hit the Garden State Plaza in September. They also run anInternet site and a toll-free, 24-hour hot line.
The program, called Why Islam?, has prompted 25 people nationwide tobecome Muslims after learning about the religion through either the Website or the hot line or at the mall, says Musaddique Thange, one of theorganizers.
But he stressed the main goal is education, not winning converts. Islam welcomes newcomers, but typically doesn't proselytize asaggressively as evangelical Christians, he said.
"The American perception of Islam is filled with misconceptions andstereotypes," said Thange, a 30-year-old computer engineer fromWoodbridge. "We want to reach out and show them who Muslims are. Webelieve we can have a positive influence on America. And, our door isalways open for newcomers."
Muslims are required to pray five times a day, abstain from alcohol,fast during the holy month of Ramadan, and, if possible, make apilgrimage to Mecca once in their life.
Islam stresses family values, and strict Muslims do not date. They relyon their family and community to arrange a marriage.
Islam has grown rapidly in America, mainly because of conversions in theAfrican-American community and immigration from the Middle East andSouth Asia. Roughly 5 million to 7 million Muslims live in NorthAmerica.
But many Muslims say they feel like outsiders. They say the news mediaand the entertainment industry portray them as zealots or terrorists. Ina recent nationwide survey of leaders at more than 400 mosques, some 56percent agreed that America is hostile to Islam.
During two recent Saturdays spent at Willowbrook, the Muslimsencountered a range of responses that at times seemed more a testamentto the increasingly diverse face of North Jersey. A Coptic Christianfrom Egypt ventured up to the table to start a lively discussion onreligious freedom. A Jehovah's Witness from Lebanon engaged the Muslimsin a polite conversation about scripture.
And many local Muslims stopped by the table simply to say they'regrateful to see Islam on display at the mall.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw it," said Hoda Nasr, of Lyndhurst. "Itjust grabbed my attention."
Two elderly men who sat on a bench near the Islamic display tableexpressed disdain for the event. One of them, Leo Purciello of Nutley,said he was skeptical of most religions. And he said the violence in theMideast has made him wary of Islam, though he added that he wouldn'ttake sides in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. "Bothsides are just killing each other there," he said.
Still, many shoppers seemed positive, or at least curious. Gabriella Powell, of Wanaque, said she was interested in reading theKoran. "I'm probably more interested in it as literature," she said. "Inever had time in college to actually read it.
Katey Suter, a Penn State student, left with a book called"Understanding Islam."
"I'm just interested," Suter said. "I'm a philosophy major, and I thinkit would be good to look into this."