DEARBORN HEIGHTS, Mich. (AP) — When the Islamic Institute of America bought a Baptist church, the plan initially was to remove the pews — until the mosque's leader objected, in part because he saw keeping the benches as a way of showing Islam's compatibility with its sister faith.
"We're sending a message to non-Muslim visitors and friends — particularly our interfaith community and Christians," Iman Hassan Qazwini, one of the top Shiite Muslim leaders in the U.S., said from what's now the institute's lecture hall.
"We use the same benches you sat on. We're using the same stage your pastor used to disseminate our message, which is not too different from your message," he added. "The gap that exists between us is not that huge."
Qazwini said reaching out to Christians, Jews and others has never been more important, with a U.S. president who has said Islam hates the U.S. and polls finding most Americans holding negative views of the faith. He sees education and outreach as the primary missions of the Islamic Institute of America in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights, which has one of the largest and oldest Arab-Muslim communities outside the Middle East.
Qazwini, who comes from a family of prominent American Shiite scholars and is of Iraqi descent, said he hopes to quell fears and misunderstandings through regular interfaith gatherings and a media division that will produce short videos and other internet-based programming.
Next year, the center plans to launch a seminary aimed at equipping a new generation of Muslim leaders who can help forge a better understanding of Islam in the West. He said the seminary would not only help produce well-rounded scholars who can engage with the wider world, but also better serve their U.S.-born congregants.
"One of the issues we Muslims face in the country is ... the huge gap that exists between leaders coming from the Middle East to lead our Islamic institutions and their congregations. For most of those leaders, including myself, it takes years to adapt with the environment, with the American psyche, mentality and even lifestyle," he said.
Qazwini's new institute is just a few miles from the Islamic Center of America, one of North America's largest mosques and where he served for 18 years before leaving in 2015.
Liyakat Takim, a professor of global Islam at McMaster University in the Canadian city of Hamilton, Ontario, said the U.S. has one or two Islamic educational institutions, but "none with the same vision" offered by Qazwini.
"For the longest time, the Muslim community has imported scholars from abroad or sent them abroad to study," said Takim, who knows Qazwini. "They're not always conducive to the environment we have in America. This can create a younger generation that can preach a message which is amendable to the American environment."
Takim said Qazwini is "a man of great vision," and delivering on his plans for the institute will be "an exceptional feat and a great challenge," given rising anti-Muslim sentiment.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2014 found Americans view Islam less favorably than other major religions and atheism. Another Pew survey found 38 percent of Americans think Islam is more likely than others to encourage violence among its followers, while 50 percent think it is not more likely.
President Donald Trump's campaign was marked by anti-Muslim rhetoric and, since being inaugurated, he's sought to enact a travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries.
Qazwini said perceptions of Islam are hurt by acts of violence or terror committed by people who call themselves Muslim. He criticizes the media for rushing to associate someone's crime with his religion if that person is or appears to be Muslim. Just because somebody acts "in the name of religion," it "doesn't mean the religion is acting," he said.
Still, he can understand the fears.
"If I put myself in a non-Muslim's shoes, I fully understand how they feel," he said. "There's a massive, massive bombardment of anti-Islamic literature, imagery that leads viewers and readers to believe Islam is not compatible with the 21st century. It is our job as Muslims to change that and to contribute. ... Maybe we can't do it all, but at least we try."
Qazwini said his institute seeks to educate Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and make them feel comfortable in each other's company.
"We're not your enemy," he said.
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