As Islamic extremism grabs national headlines and presidential candidates openly question the fitness of Muslims to hold high office in the United States, Imam Talib Shareef, the leader of the Washington D.C.’s oldest mosque, spoke on being Muslim in America at an open forum in New Haven Saturday.

Shareef conversed with Shahid Abdul-Karim, the community engagement editor for the New Haven Register, before roughly 30 people in the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT) in Science Park. Shareef, who served for 30 years in the U.S. military before becoming the first elected president of The Nation’s Mosque — the headquarters of Malcolm X’s African-American religious group, the Nation of Islam — spoke on several topics, ranging from the history of Islam in the United States to Islamic attitudes towards women and homosexuality.

Shareef began the talk with a discussion of Islamophobia in American society, urging Muslims to focus on addressing the root causes of anti-Islamic sentiments instead of focusing on how the sentiments make them feel.

“I think what’s driving Islamophobia is really the biggest struggle,” he said. “Really, the biggest struggle is against the false identity of what a Muslim is … This is the biggest struggle, but it’s also an opportunity.”

One audience member disagreed with Shareef. She said the media should be held accountable for inciting Islamophobia. But Shareef said that while this may have once been the case, it no longer is. Instead, Shareef said, extremism is driving negative perceptions of Islam.

In response to Abdul-Karim’s question about how Muslims should view homosexuality, Shareef said that though the Quran explicitly prohibits homosexual activity, it also states that God and not individuals should judge others’ acts.

Individuals should be able to live freely, even if they risk negative judgment from God, he said.

“The story of Lot, which is in the Quran, shows that we are not to hurt anybody who chooses their lifestyle,” he said. “It shows that God is to punish them — humans don’t do any of that … Some Muslims, they have extreme views, and they probably disagree with this, but God doesn’t make you do anything.”

Given Shareef’s extensive service in the military and as a religious leader in the capital, Saturday’s discussion centered on the difficulties of being Muslim and American. Shareef said it was initially challenging to be Muslim in the military.

Shareef said few religious accommodations — such as prayer space, Muslim chaplains and later dining hall hours during Ramadan — were available in 1979, when he began military service.

Shareef said he was able to petition for change with the help of a Christian chaplain and had access to prayer spaces in the 1980s. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, he said anti-Islamic sentiment arose among some members of the military, and he was forced to use his seniority and non-Arab features to bridge the gap between Muslim and non-Muslim soldiers.

“After 9/11 hit, the younger ones — younger sailors, soldiers — came to cause problems for the Arabs who were among us,” Shareef, who is black himself, said. “Of course, everyone knew I was a Muslim, but I didn’t look like an Arab.”

A dominant theme in the talk was the divide between black Christian and Muslim communities in the United States. Shareef said most African-American Muslims are converts and that this frays relations with black Christian communities.

Shareef said he typically receives more speaking invitations from white churches than from black ones.

“Why does it seem that the black Christians are the hardest on the Muslims? The way to think about it is that, if you’re an African-American minister, you’re losing parishioners,” he said. “Some of them feel threatened.”

Audience member William Mathis said the legacy of slavery has created “artificial” fault lines through the African diaspora that continue to be felt to this day in the form of factions between African-American mosques and churches.

ConnCAT is located at 4 Science Park.