By Greg Gelpi
Students of the Muslim faith are in nearly every school in Clayton County. Yet few teachers know of the faith's customs and observances.
In an attempt to change this, 15 Clayton County teachers attended a program held at the Islamic Center of Atlanta in Fayetteville.
"Clayton County has become very multicultural," said Elaine McGee, who teaches English as a second language at Kendrick Middle. "We've become so multicultural that we have to be aware."
The school system doesn't keep records of students' faith, the student services department said, but Soumaya Khalifa estimated that 300 to 400 Muslim students attend school in Clayton, although she said that figure is a low estimate. There are about 50,000 students in the county schools.
During Thursday's meeting, Khalifa, the executive director of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, and Huma Faruqi presented the basic principles of Islam, dispelled many popular misconceptions and offered suggestions for working with Muslim students.
"This is the first time I thought of Muslims as real people," said Yvonne Vollmer, a teacher at Adamson Middle School. "I guess I thought I would walk in and find terrorists everywhere."
That and other stereotypes fuel a fear among Muslims, Khalifa said
"Every time I hear the word ?terrorist' I hold my breath," she said, fearing that "Muslim" will follow that word.
The media often associates the actions of terrorists with the Muslim religion, but not with the Christian religion, she explained. The Quran, the Muslim holy book, forbids killing and suicide.
During a break in the presentation, McGee said that Muslims have more in common with other religions than thought.
For example, Christians and Muslims both worship the same God, Khalifa said, despite Christians referring to their deity as God and Muslims using the term Allah.
But people shouldn't fear the differences, they should ask questions and challenge themselves to learn about them, Khalifa said.
"A lot of times we act like we don't see the differences when they stare us in the face," said teacher Gwendolyn Scott. "It's like you're looking, but you're not really looking."
It's the fear of the unknown and the not asking, though, which further separates those who are different from the mainstream, Khalifa said.