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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 25, 2009

Islam Day honors commonality

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Tiffany Bakrim of Diamond Head applies a henna tattoo to Celene Rodriguez of 'Ewa Beach at the festival.

Photos by NORMAN SHAPIRO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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When the Hawai'i Legislature approved a resolution declaring Sept. 24 "Islam Day," the measure set of a firestorm of debate because the day fell so close to the date of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

But yesterday, politics was set aside as hundreds of people packed the McCoy Pavilion at Ala Moana Beach Park to celebrate Hawai'i's first Islam Day.

By 5 p.m., about 1,000 people had walked through the pavilion's gates and event organizers expected more as people got off work and headed to the park.

"We expected 200 to 300, so we're very pleased with the turnout," said Hakim Ouansafi, president of the Muslim Association of Hawaii, which sponsored the event.

More than a dozen Honolulu police officers and private security personnel patrolled the pavilion grounds, but there were no protests or reports of trouble.

"It's a historic day. It's long overdue," Ouansafi said. "It's a day of celebrating our commonality, a day of people of faith and no faith to get together and talk story."

The Legislature approved the resolution last session to acknowledge the "rich religious, scientific, cultural and artistic contributions" of the Islamic world. Yesterday was selected because it marked the end of Ramadan, the month in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and make contributions to charities.

But the resolution sparked debate in Hawai'i and across the country because Islam Day fell in the same month as the Sept. 11 attacks. Critics were concerned about the link between the Islam religion and the extremists responsible for the attacks.

Ouansafi said criticism of Islam Day had subsided since the resolution was passed and opposition soon changed to support.

"A lot of people reacted out of fear and ignorance and they've had a chance to reflect a little bit more and people are coming around," he said.

Yesterday's event also doubled as a food drive for the Hawaii Foodbank. It featured games for children, free food, music and a panel discussion on "Coexistence in a Pluralistic Society."

Michael and Tami Ulanski of Red Hill went to yesterday's event for a special reason: Michael, who served two tours in Iraq with the Army, converted to the Muslim religion in April. Tami has not made the conversion and is a dedicated member of the New Hope church.

The Ulanskis were born and raised Catholics, but Michael Ulanski said he converted after reading the Quran for the first time so he could understand what he was dealing with while in Iraq.

"I started reading it and Chapter One, it just hit me. It grabbed me and everything about it made sense," he said. "It struck me as the right thing so I just kept at it and I kept studying it and reading it and decided after a month or two that that was the right thing for me."

Tami Ulanski said she respects her husband's decision and is trying to understand why he did it. That's why she said she attended yesterday's Islam Day event.

"I came to see what it's all about, what he feels so strongly about," she said. "I don't know enough or am educated enough about it. It's an adjustment."

For Suha Khan, yesterday was a day to celebrate and express her pride in being Muslim. Khan, 19, a graduate of Pearl City High School and student at Leeward Community College, was born in Hawai'i, but her parents are from Pakistan.

Khan said she began wearing a hijab, or traditional head wear, when she was in high school and now wears it whenever she goes out.

"It's a very big step and a huge step in this society," she said of Islam Day. "It means that people recognize us as a religion and respect us. Obviously not everyone does, but for me, it makes me very happy because as an American citizen, I love this country. It has given my parents and me opportunities we would not have in our home country. I respect this country very much."