Attracting audience from around Scotland, Muslim leaders have organized a conference to correct misconceptions about their faith, and break down barriers with followers of other faiths.
“We wanted to provide a social space, a family-friendly venue, for people of all religions to meet and have free discussions,” Zahid Ali, a spokesman for the group organizing the event, Vision Islam, told The Scotsman on Monday, March 18.
“The problem we have is this – there are people who have a view of what Islam is, but most people don’t interact with Muslims, and if they do it is generally in a shop, so they don’t have a chance to interact on a social level and exchange views.”
Themed “Hope Conference; Islam is not what you think”, the event was designed to bring Muslims and non-Muslims together to break down barriers.
Held at Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange on Sunday, it attracted more than 800 people to discuss all aspects of the religion.
Attendants were also invited to listen to a host of high-profile Muslim speakers including Yvonne Ridley from Britain, Yusuf Estes and Kamal El Mekki from the United States and others.
“This particular event was designed to be a really positive day – to bring people from all faiths together to share their thoughts on Islam,” Ali said.
Attracting Muslims and non-Muslims from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee, the conference was held to tie in with the end of Islam Awareness Week.
It included scores of exhibition boards and stalls about Islam.
The event also hosted a series of lectures tackling topics such as “Islam a Religion of Peace & Hope”, “Islam misunderstood: media’s role” and “Are Women Oppressed in Islam”.
Scotland is home to more than 500,000 Muslims, making up less than one percent of the population.
Muslims are the second largest religious group in the country, which has thirty mosques.
Encouraging dialogue with the wider society, the conference has offered Muslims a chance to dispel misconceptions about their faith.
“There is this family side to Islam where we are all interacting and sharing ideas – then there is the darker side of politics and the rise of attacks against Muslim women, against Mosques and the rise of Islamophobia,” Ali said.
The spokesman said Muslims were caught in the middle of far-right radicals and Islamophobes.
“We are caught in a very difficult place,” he added.
“At one end we have been hijacked by radical fundamentalists and on the other side we are being targeted by people who think all Muslims are extremist.
“This is always something that is simmering under the surface – an anti-Muslim sentiment – especially in tough economic times.
“In challenging economies, as we have seen throughout history, Nazi right-wing groups rise up. However, we are aware of this, which is why it is so important to get people talking, and break down barriers,” he said.
Ali noted that though Scottish Independence has divided the society, he saw it as a benefit for the Muslim community.
“Like any community there are people on both sides of the argument. My personal feeling is that if we had an independent Scotland then it would be easier to enact some law to protect religious minorities,” he said.
“There is of course the law again bigotry which we think is heading down the right religious lines – and we’ve had some positive noises from the Scottish Government.”
Bringing hope of a better understanding in Scottish society, the Muslim event won plaudits from Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who visited the conference.
“Events like these can help to dispel ignorance,” MacAskill said.
“They can help contribute to the process of dismantling damaging and excluding stereotypes and reduce misunderstanding or misrepresentation.”