Lecture explores Muslim identities

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March 27, 2009

4:30 AM

The chair of American University’s Islamic studies department, Akbar Ahmed, gave a lecture entitled, “Islam in America” at the College of William and Mary Thursday. He discussed a project, entitled “Journey into America,” which explores how Muslim and American identities merge, as well as ways the Western and the Muslim world can better relate to each other in the post-Sept. 11 era.

Ahmed began his presentation with two videos. One was a portion of a BBC interview about his project, while the other was a filmed portion of “Journey into America” entitled “Arab Alabama.”
“Arab Alabama” documented a member of Ahmed’s staff dressed as a young Muslim girl eating at a diner in the town of Arab, Ala.

Though the team had expected a poor reaction to the Middle Eastern clothing from the town’s residents, the people of Arab proved friendly and curious.

After the clip, Ahmed said that he embarked on this extensive project after Sept. 11 to better understand the relationship between America and Islam during that politically charged time.

He traveled to the Middle East and Southern Asia, interviewing the Muslim population. He spent an extensive amount of time in different areas, attending religious services, community events and family outings.
Ahmed asked those he met what they thought was the main problem facing the Muslim world. The overwhelming majority answered that they felt America misunderstood Islam.

Despite the great amount of data he had collected, Ahmed said he feels as though the project was no completed.

“The picture was not complete,” Ahmed said. “It would only be complete if we did a reverse journey into America.”

With a team of five university honors students, Ahmed explored Muslim communities throughout the United States, in places like New York City, Chicago, Las Vegas, St. Louis and Arab, Ala.

Though he has not finished compiling data, Ahmed said he has come to a conclusion about American identity.

“If American identity is what I think it means, if Jefferson is right, if Washington was right, if Madison was right, then the vision of America is pluralist,” Ahmed said. “It is broad, it is accepting, and generally tolerant of religion. … At its heart is the notion of democracy and civil liberties. For everyone.”

But Ahmed said that a contradiction lies at the heart of this identity.

“It appears that the Muslim communities have no rights,” Ahmed said. “This is a challenge to the American identity in itself. America has gone against its founding fathers. How can you explain going against your own identity?”

“Islam in America” is part of the World in America Speaker Series, which explores how international factors affect the American identity. Ahmed’s project can be found on the web at journeyintoamerica.wordpress.com.

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