Dr. Majeed told the crowd that she wanted to engage in an honest conversation. Nothing, she said, was “off limits.” She asked the audience what words come to mind when she says “Islam?” Audience members volunteered these words and others.
Nearly 25% of the world population consider themselves Muslim. In the United States, the Muslim population is less than 1%. In Wisconsin, it’s less than that. We may feel embarrassed to admit how little we know about Islam. We are not alone in wishing we knew more.
The little town of DeForest, population 9,247, is in many ways a pretty typical Midwestern town. However, the DeForest Area Public Library stands out for being one of only 31 libraries in Wisconsin to have received a resource kit called the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf . The kit includes twenty-five books and three films, all chosen by experts to make the vast and complex subject of Muslim history and culture accessible to the average curious American. The resource kit was produced by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association.
After receiving the kit, the librarian in DeForest planned events to bring folks through the doors and into the conversation. The Wisconsin Humanities Council gave the library a small grant to pay for a talk called “Myths and Islam” by Dr. Debra Majeed.
Dr. Majeed is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Beloit College. When she spoke to the crowd gathered at the library, she shared some of her own story. Now a devout Muslim and a scholar, she referenced American pop culture as she illuminated commonalities between the Abrahmic religions—Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
A few weeks after this gathering in DeForest, Senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama questioned the value of the “Bridging Cultures” program. He asked the National Endowment for the Humanities to explain and defend the appropriateness of federal support for such initiatives.
In the immediate wake of the Senator’s public statement, many editorials defending the humanities were written. It can’t be taken for granted that events like the one that took place in DeForest, and the “Bridging Cultures Bookshelf,” are worthwhile and helpful. Not everyone believes that federal money should be spent this way.
These differences of opinion across American political lines can sometimes feel as stark and threatening as the culture-shock a non-Muslim American might have in traveling in a Muslim country. When we explore cultures different from our own, it becomes remarkably clear that we ourselves have habits and preferences that define us. Learning to talk about why we feel the way we do, how we came to form our ideas, and why these things matter to us at all, is a humanities conversation. It is really THE humanities conversation.
Have you read a book lately that helped you see another perspective? Allowed you to walk in someone else’s shoes? Or took you to a foreign or exotic setting? Did it inspire any humanities conversations?