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The exotic smells of coriander and turmeric extended far beyond the doors of the First Presbyterian Church community room.

Inside, 150 Missoulians heaped plates of allo gobi, Baghdad kibbeh and good will to start off “Celebrate Islam Week.” The hope was that, like the aromas of shared food, a sense of tolerance and understanding might spread.

“These personal connections are critical,” said Imam Jamal Rahman of Seattle. “We can coexist with differences. People are starting to realize you simply have to honor and celebrate diversity.”

Rahman has been starting these conversations nationwide since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Teamed with a rabbi and a United Church of Christ pastor known collectively as the Interfaith Amigos, Rahman has been giving TED talks and workshops as a nearly full-time calling.

One persistent thing he’s found is an assumption that someone’s religion drives their opinions and decisions. He cited studies of suicide bombers that found those who blew themselves up didn’t die for spiritual faith so much as for political reasons: They wanted to strike a foreign occupier.

“Most conflicts seem based on religious differences,” Rahman said. “But the roots are money and power. We are searching among the branches and leaves for what is hidden in the roots.”

Another recent survey of Americans showed about 60 percent did not want to see a mosque built in their state. Rahman said while that sounds like bad news for his interfaith outreach, he still found hope in the data. Most of those opposed to a mosque said they had also never personally met a Muslim. That made inspiring events like Celebrate Islam Week an effective way to tip that balance.

Monday’s feast was the second annual event organized by Missoula-based Standing Alongside America’s Muslims, or SALAM (which means “peace” in Arabic). Additional events include spiritual workshops, movies and dance presentations.

“This puts a human face to the discussion,” SALAM board member Daniel McMannis said of the room full of happy diners. “When people share their food, that generosity and openness starts to change you in a real human way. It allows you to take off that particular suit of religion you wear.”

Rahman added the gatherings also help people expand their awareness of others’ needs. If Americans still find the horror of 9/11 traumatic, he said, then have sympathy for people in the Middle East where continuous war and terror have killed the same number of people every month for the past decade.

“We need to stop talking about religion and just stop the wars,” Rahman said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Sunni or Shia or Christian or Jewish or Hindu, with all this bloodshed you just go crazy. It mangles the soul.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.