Amid a presidential campaign season that has seen increased anti-Muslim rhetoric, and in the wake of ISIS-inspired attacks in California and abroad, a national Muslim-American organization is bringing its annual convention to Baltimore this weekend. It expects to draw tens of thousands for programs aimed at "dispelling destructive myths about the Islamic faith and about Muslim Americans."
The 41st national conference of the Islamic Circle of North America comes as Muslim organizations and their allies say Muslim Americans are facing growing levels of suspicion and intolerance.
Muslim leaders and organizations in the United States have condemned attacks on Paris, San Bernardino, Calif., and Brussels. Still, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has catalogued an increase in anti-Muslim incidents and rhetoric in recent months.
"There is a lot of misinformation about the Quran and Muslims," said Naeem Baig, president of the Islamic Circle of North America. "Islamophobia has become alarmingly commonplace during this past year. Much of this is due to the current presidential campaign cycle, in which anti-Muslim and anti-Islam rhetoric has translated into increased campaign donations and a [larger] spotlight."
Scholars and professionals in fields such as finance, law and child psychology will deliver talks, lead workshops and organize breakout sessions related to Islam and Quranic values at the Baltimore Convention Center on each of the three days of the Memorial Day weekend.
Their common goal, Baig said, will be to affirm and communicate the essential values of the faith, including the importance of generosity, social justice, equality and the need to foster strong families.
The convention will feature a bazaar, a Quran recitation contest, children's activities, and dawah workshops — efforts at communicating Islamic values through dialogue — as well as talks by Islamic scholars and imams from across the United States.
The majority of attendees will be Muslim Americans, organizers say, but all activities are open to the public. Organizers plan for three workshops aimed at educating non-Muslims about the faith.
Entry costs are $69 for an adult for one day, $105 for all three days. Discounts will be considered based on financial need, a spokesman said.
This will be the third straight year the group has held its convention in Baltimore.
Imam Hassan Amin, an imam at the Johns Hopkins University and a chaplain with the Baltimore Police Department, said the event spreads positive messages in two directions.
He said it helps familiarize Muslims from across the nation with the "beauties of Baltimore, not just the negative things people see on TV shows like 'The Wire,'" while also familiarizing local residents with the essence of a religion that, like the city, is often misunderstood.
Amin said the Islamic Circle's willingness to hold its convention here after the Freddie Gray riots last spring is a testament to the values of the organization — and the faith.
Convention organizers worked with the Muslim Social Services Agency, a local group Amin heads, to distribute soap, shampoo, toothpaste and other items to seniors and homeless people affected by the rioting.
Hundreds of volunteers will do the same this year, Amin said, distributing "blessing bags" containing hygiene items to the homeless and elderly in low-income neighborhoods. Amin said their charitable acts should help dispel harmful stereotypes.
"The people of Baltimore learn so much from actually seeing and interacting with real Muslims," he said. "This is a diverse collection of people who are positive and kind, no different from Christians or Jews who have the spirit of helping people. They're not a bunch of terrorists ready to blow the city to bits."
The Islamic Circle, founded in 1968 as an offshoot of the Muslim Students Association, describes itself as a "grassroots umbrella organization" that organizes educational and other activities for Muslim Americans, sponsors charitable initiatives, works with interfaith groups and aims to educate non-Muslims about the faith.
Its annual convention has grown rapidly over the past decade, organizers say, with attendance expanding from an average of about 8,000 during the early 2000s, when it was held in Hartford, Conn., to its highest-ever attendance of about 20,000 in Baltimore last year.
Based on registrations, organizers say they expect attendance to jump by at least 30 percent this year, to 26,000 or more.
Officials chose Baltimore as the convention's new home in 2013 due in part to its central location on the East Coast and the proximity of hotels to the convention center, a setup that makes it easier for families with children to attend.
Attendees come from all over the United States, organizers say, with the majority traveling to the event from the Mid-Atlantic states. The Muslim American Society, another national outreach organization, will offer logistical support.
The two groups have attracted controversy over the years.
In 2011, the Anti-Defamation League accused the organizations of hosting speakers at a joint convention who "made anti-Semitic and conspiratorial remarks, portraying Jews as a privileged group with undue power" and who called for "the eradication of the state of Israel."
In response, the Islamic Circle said it and the Muslim American Society "categorically state that our organizations do not affirm any statements that reflect hatred of the Jewish people, or any other religious or ethnic community, or that call for the destruction of Israel."
When a convention hosts a large number of speakers, Baig said, it's hard to ensure that none will make statements that conflict with the organizers' views.
"When it comes to condemning terrorist attacks or any form of violence, yes, we stand against any terrorist attacks, any violence," he said. "We are for human rights and human dignity" for all people.
After the shooting attack that killed 14 people and injured 22 in San Bernardino in December, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."
When Sen. Ted Cruz was still in the GOP primary race, he spoke of increasing police surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods.
Baig believes that those who "spread hatred and false rumors" about the Islamic faith — including politicians trying to draw attention in election years — fail to grasp or tell voters that violent extremists are not practicing the true religion, but seizing on isolated teachings of the faith and distorting them to promote a sociopolitical agenda.
Such extremists make up a minuscule slice of the world's 1.6 billion self-identified Muslims, he said, and their behavior is the opposite of the peaceful ways of the overwhelming majority.
"We want to bring to the Muslim community, and to the larger society, that your Muslim neighbor practices an Islam that teaches loving your neighbor — that if your neighbor has a hungry stomach, you will not enter paradise," he said.
In other instances, Baig said, critics confuse long-standing cultural practices with Quranic teachings — often citing, for example, the fact that women in women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive.
The practice is non-Islamic, he said, and is enforced in only one of the world's 57 Muslim countries.
Amin agreed that many politicians benefit by trafficking in harmful stereotypes about the faith.
"It's time to vote, so here we go: Politicians will be talking about crime, the economy and terrorism, and they'll say terrorism is synonymous with Muslims and Islam, and that's not true."
Baltimoreans will have a chance this weekend to see Muslims from across the country enjoying the same simple pleasures everyone does, he said — visiting local restaurants and enjoying the breezes coming off the Inner Harbor.
Amin had a word of advice for them.
"Don't listen to people talking about me, especially politicians," he said. "Ask me about me. Let's just get to know each other."