Nasreen Poptani was raised Muslim in Canada but she chose to start wearing a headscarf later in life, after graduating from LSU in 2006 and moving to Virginia with her husband and three children.

When her family moved back to Baton Rouge two years ago, Poptani said, she was wary of how she would be received given the political climate. She considered abandoning her headscarf — a "daily reminder that God is in your heart" — but chose to test the waters instead. 

"I didn't want to hide who I am," she said. "The foundation of Islam is peace and submission to God. There are so many misconceptions. … I want to educate people on who and what we are."

Poptani was one of several members of the Islamic Center of Baton Rouge who spoke Sunday afternoon during an event at the mosque, organized in conjunction with the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge and aimed at educating the public about Islam. 

About 25 people of different faiths attended the discussion, and several said they found striking similarities between their own religions and those of their Muslim neighbors at a time when reports of terrorism often dominate conversations surrounding the Islamic faith. Poptani and others spoke about using this moment — and the negative perceptions arising from political tensions and media reports — to answer people's questions and correct their misconceptions. 

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In addition to describing the basic tenets of Islam and offering their guests a meal of Middle Eastern dishes, members of the mosque addressed some common sources of criticism, particularly the treatment of women in Muslim countries. They said the Quran refers to men and woman as equals under God and directs them both to seek knowledge.

Hannah Alkadi, a Baton Rouge native and recent LSU graduate who converted to Islam during her freshman year, said that when Islam began to spread, the religion afforded women rights and status that before had fallen out of their reach. She asked her audience to start considering the difference between religious beliefs and cultural practices in Muslim countries.

"One huge misconception about Islam is women having no rights," said Niloufer Mohamed, a member of the mosque and treasurer of the Interfaith Federation. "People have to learn about the religion to filter out what is culture and what is religion" before they can properly distinguish between the two.

Muslims may worship a different sacred text, she said, but the fundamental pursuit of morality — treating others with compassion and judging based on a person's character, not their social status or appearance — echoes many other religions: "We want people to realize how much we have in common and come together in dialogue, get to know us and work together to nurture the community."


Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.