The Record, Bergen County, NJ - Against a backdrop of Starbucks, the Body Shop, and Nine West, Mohamed Filali is poised to hand out copies of the Islamic holy book, the Koran.
It's a busy Saturday at Willowbrook Mall, and shoppers walking past Filali are greeted by a colorful display of Islamic images erected hours earlier. Some walk by without a glance. Others stop and stare before moving on. Still others venture up to pose questions.
Filali and his fellow Muslims have come prepared. A table is stocked with 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 people about Islam.
"A Muslim means one who submits to the will of God," Filali tells two young 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, you also need instruction for life," said Filali, a Moroccan native and a Clifton 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 as extremists, New Jersey Muslims are taking their faith directly to the people. Visiting shopping malls around the state, they aim to teach the public about a world religion that is just beginning to assert its presence on American soil.
"You have to address the people where they will be," says Filali, an office 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 long as people are not enslaved by consumerism."
Though shopping malls have long provided floor space for non-profit groups, Muslims have traditionally shied away from such an approach. Now, however, Muslims nationwide are forming advocacy groups, joining interfaith dialogues, and seeking a more visible and larger role in American public life. Setting up shop at the mall seemed like the next logical step, said Roxanne Dworak-Filali, Mohamed's wife.
"It's a very non-threatening way of telling people who we are," said Dworak-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 North America, have visited about five malls in the last eight months. They plan to hit the Garden State Plaza in September. They also run an Internet site and a toll-free, 24-hour hot line.
The program, called Why Islam?, has prompted 25 people nationwide to become Muslims after learning about the religion through either the Web site or the hot line or at the mall, says Musaddique Thange, one of the organizers.
But he stressed the main goal is education, not winning converts. Islam welcomes newcomers, but typically doesn't proselytize as aggressively as evangelical Christians, he said.
"The American perception of Islam is filled with misconceptions and stereotypes," said Thange, a 30-year-old computer engineer from Woodbridge. "We want to reach out and show them who Muslims are. We believe we can have a positive influence on America. And, our door is always open for newcomers."
Muslims say they worship the same God as Christians and Jews, but believe the final and authoritative revelation was given to Mohammed, a prophet who began preaching in Mecca in the early seventh century.
Muslims are required to pray five times a day, abstain from alcohol, fast during the holy month of Ramadan, and, if possible, make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their life.
Islam stresses family values, and strict Muslims do not date. They rely on their family and community to arrange a marriage.
Islam has grown rapidly in America, mainly because of conversions in the African-American community and immigration from the Middle East and South Asia. Roughly 7 million to 10 million Muslims live in North America.
But many Muslims say they feel like outsiders. They say the news media and the entertainment industry portray them as zealots or terrorists. In a recent nationwide survey of leaders at more than 400 mosques, some 56 percent agreed that America is hostile to Islam.
During two recent Saturdays spent at Willowbrook, the Muslims encountered a range of responses that at times seemed more a testament to the increasingly diverse face of North Jersey. A Coptic
Christian from Egypt ventured up to the table to start a lively discussion on religious freedom. A Jehovah's Witness from Lebanon engaged the Muslims in a polite conversation about scripture.
And, many local Muslims stopped by the table simply to say they're grateful to see Islam on display at the mall.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw it," said Hoda Nasr, of Lyndhurst. "It just grabbed my attention."
Two elderly men who sat on a bench near the Islamic display table expressed disdain for the event. One of them, Leo Purciello of Nutley, said he was skeptical of most religions. And he said the violence in the Mideast has made him wary of Islam, though he added that he wouldn't take sides in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. "Both sides 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 the Koran. "I'm probably more interested in it as literature," she said. "I never 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 think it would be good to look into this."