FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — Despite the smells of fried dough and roasted meat wafting from the Minnesota State Fair, Salim and Zuleyha Ozonder were focused on the people who were leaving, not the food or festivities beckoning from across the street.
Each time a new wave of people exited, the young Minneapolis residents — who hadn't eaten all day — tried to press into their hands a small, glossy card that read "Islam Explained" on one side. On the other, it had about 180 words of background on a religion whose adherents fear is being misunderstood by too many Americans as violent and depraved.
"You just want people to take the card, spend a minute reading it and say, 'Oh. They're not terrorists,'" said 27-year-old Zuleyha. She and her husband, like other Muslims, were fasting during daylight hours for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
For most fairgoers, the last thing on their mind is religion — particularly the renewed controversy over Islam in America amid tension over plans for an Islamic center and mosque a few blocks from New York City's ground zero. But volunteers with the Minnesota chapter of Islamic Circle of North America saw the mostly white, Christian fair crowd as just the type of audience that might benefit from greater understanding.
The "Great Minnesota Get-Together" is one of the largest and best-attended state fairs in the country. Every day for 12 days through Labor Day, hundreds of thousands of people stream onto the fairgrounds north of St. Paul to scarf highly caloric food, stare at farm animals, clamber onto carnival rides and enjoy concerts by country singers and classic rock dinosaurs.
"What are they doing here?" said Paulette Kahlstorf of Zimmerman, who declined a card from Zuleyha as she left the fairgrounds with her husband. "I didn't come here for that."
A minute later, Kahlstorf elaborated that she didn't have a problem with all Muslims: "Just the radical ones." And she said she didn't mind their decision to hand out the cards, which include a toll-free number that anyone can call to request a free copy of the Quran.
"You know, I guess we let all the politicians come out here and schmooze, so we might as well let these folks as well," said Kahlstorf. "Doesn't mean I need to listen to them."
A poll released last week showed many Americans have the same mixed feelings about the Muslim faith. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that most Americans doubt that Islam is likelier than other faiths to encourage violence and believe Muslims should have equal rights to build houses of worship. But more people have an unfavorable than favorable view of Islam by 38 to 30 percent — nearly a reversal of findings on the same poll question in 2005, when 41 percent had favorable views compared with 36 percent unfavorable.
Najam Qureshi, a member of the Islamic Circle of North America's Minnesota chapter and a database administrator at Carlson Companies in Plymouth, said his group planned the state fair outreach effort — which includes radio commercials — long before the New York mosque controversy.
But he said that controversy has been another reminder of the work American Muslims need to do to fill what he called "the void of understanding about our faith."
Various state-based Muslim groups estimate Minnesota has about 150,000 Muslim residents, and the state has had its share of incidents in recent years. Some Muslim students reported being harassed at schools in St. Cloud and Owatonna, and some anti-Islamic posters were hung around St. Cloud.
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The Ozonders handed out 400 cards during one two-hour shift this week across the street from one of the fair's main entrances, and were taking their second shift on Wednesday. The chapter is handing out the cards throughout the fair's run, which ends on Labor Day.
Mostly positive responses
The couple said they volunteered out of a desire to "do something together" for their faith. Zuleyha moved to Minneapolis in July from New York's Westchester County after she married Salim, 28, a graduate student in physics at the University of Minnesota the last two years; both are of Turkish descent.
Both said their exchanges with fairgoers were mostly pleasant, though Zuleyha said one man cursed at her. Most people either decline the cards or quietly take them and keep moving.
Occasionally, someone will stop and talk for a few minutes, often to ask a question or two about Islam.
"More than one person said to me, 'You look normal,'" Salim Ozonder said. "So if we can even break down a few misconceptions, that is great. Too many people in this debate are no longer interested in a middle ground."
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