Sounds of the Middle East could be heard all around downtown Portland's Director Park on Saturday, July 8, at what was a diverse event in a city often called too white.
People from many different backgrounds, practicing and nonpracticing Muslims, gathered at the city park to celebrate at the first Muslim-focused festival in Portland, and possibly in the Pacific Northwest.
Hosted by the Muslim Educational Trust in partnership with a number of other agencies, including Portland Parks & Recreation and Portland Police Bureau, it's called the Portland International Muslim Cultural Festival. Organizers and local city leaders plan to make it an annual tradition going forward, with a hope to dispel myths about the religion, which some people have come to associate with terrorism.
President Donald Trump stirred the community when he authorized a travel ban on six mostly-Muslim countries, including people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen on the basis of national security.
"People have certain ideas about who Muslims are, what Islam is," says Jawad Khan, a teacher at the Oregon Islamic Academy in Tigard who was volunteering at the event. "It's a diverse group of people, with 1.2 billion-plus people spanning all around the world, with diverse customs." (Pew Research Center reports 1.8 billion as of 2015.)
Khan, born in Texas, has parents who came from India. He has lived in Portland for 20 years.
Sahar Bassyouni, director of the Islamic School of Muslim Educational Trust and at the Oregon Islamic Academy said that talk of the ban has instilled fear in many students. Born in Michigan, she grew up in Egypt, moving to Portland in 1997 with her husband.
"Things were really tough after the elections … the kids at school were worried. We had a conversation in the classroom. The kids were concerned whether they would need to leave," she said.
City Commissioner Nick Fish discussed what he called "so much ugliness" in the first six months of 2017. "The murder of the Good Samaritans on the MAX, the unlawful executive orders issued by the administration, including the Muslim travel ban. The targeting of immigrants in our community, the coarsening of our whole civic life, the rise of hate and intolerance and Islamophobia," Fish said. "There's been so much ugliness … we need events like this, gatherings like this more than ever."
In May, two men were killed on a MAX train following the rants of a white supremacist who targeted two young girls, one of whom was wearing a hijab.
Portland Police Chief Mike Marshman, along with other police bureau officers, was present at the festival, where he told audiences that they don't want the bureau to be a symbol of fear to the community.
"I tend to look at it differently. I think that negativity is drawing people together to have these conversations."
-Portland Police Chief Mike Marshman
He said they are actively working with IRCO, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, to better understand the needs of those particular populations, which are growing in Portland. Officials declared Portland a sanctuary city earlier this year. Marshman noted that some police officers at the event that day were immigrants and refugees.
"We can look back at the first six months of this year and have just a lot of negativity," Marshman said. "I tend to look at it differently. I think that negativity is drawing people together to have these conversations."
Officials' comments drew to a close and sun shined bright, while children with different skin colors splashed water from the Teachers Fountain, inadvertently hitting patrons sitting at tables at Director Park. But most weren't annoyed and could only smile.
"I think that's what makes the event so significant," said Ibrahim Ibrahim, 17, from a Sudanese American originally from Texas, studying at the Tigard academy (noting that indeed, that his first and last names are the same). "It's showcasing what Muslims are all about, while being within a central park of American life in Portland."
Fast facts about Muslims, according to Pew Research Center
• 1.8 billion Muslims in the world as of 2015, 24 percent of the global population
• World's second-largest religion after Christianity, but fastest-growing major religion. May exceed the number of Christians by the end of the century
• A majority of the Muslims globally (62 percent) live in the Asia-Pacific region, including large populations in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Turkey
• Indonesia is currently the country with the world's largest Muslim population, but Pew Research Center projects that India will have that distinction by the year 2050