msnbc.com
updated 10/22/2010 10:50:54 AM ET 2010-10-22T14:50:54

How to battle fear and hatred of Islam? For dozens of mosques around the U.S. this week, one strategy has been to host open houses for non-Muslims that also aim at building religious relationships.

The first national "week of dialogue" was born at a summit of U.S. Muslim leaders last month following the attack of a Muslim taxi driver in New York, the controversy over an Islamic center and mosque near New York's Ground Zero, and the threat by a Florida pastor to burn Qurans.

In New York, some 20 mosques have held the open houses so far, said Zaheer Uddin, executive director of the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York.

Two Manhattan churches, a synagogue and a mosque also held an inter-faith service last Sunday attended by more than 300 people, Uddin said.

The open houses include question-and-answer sessions, mosque tours and often visitors watching the start or finish of a prayer service, Uddin said. Seminars might also be held where scholars "focus on the commonalties between Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam," he added.

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For many, the visit has been their first time at a mosque, Uddin said, and "some are shocked to know that a Muslim could not be a Muslim until he/she believes in Jesus, Moses and Jacob."

Mosques in Chicago, Ill., as well as dozens in cities across California, Texas and several other states also joined in.

In Southern California, some 25 mosques participated in what was the region's 8th annual open house effort.

"The average was 200 guests of various faith groups" at each mosque, said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.

Syed said he personally hosted 100 members of a synagogue, 30 of them children, at his mosque in Culver City, Calif.

The Southern California open houses were first organized after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and Syed said this year's participation was up there with the first year's given the rash of recent incidents.

Yet another controversy flared this week, when National Public Radio fired commentator Juan Williams for saying he gets "nervous" when on flights with people who are in "Muslim garb."

Uddin said his group appreciated the "very swift decision" to fire Williams, adding that Americans "should not tolerate Islamophobia."

As for future open houses, Uddin said he was sure more events would be held — and not just once a year.

"It is not an uphill battle at all to explain the teachings of Islam or understand the teachings of Islam if people come with open mind," he said.

And Syed stressed that the open houses are about much more than fighting hatred. "It's not only to battle and dispel myths and fallacies," he said, "but also to provide objective information about Muslims and Islam, provide a forum for building relationships and exploring the idea of working together for greater good." 

For those seeking instant information there's also a whyislam.org website hosted by the Islamic Circle of North America. Prefer to ask questions of a real person? That's an option as well: 1-877-WHY-ISLAM.

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Shakeel Syed answered readers questions about Islam during a msnbc.com online chat earlier today. Click here to read the transcript.

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