Understanding Islam, Feb 05 | Mount Mercy’s Series Embraces the Multi-Cultural Reality of Today’s World

By James Moore

The Des Moines Art Center recently acquired this print for their permanent collections by Iranian-born American Shirin Neshat. (Rapture Series [Women in a Line], 1999, color photograph, 20 x 24 inches, gift of the Des Moines Art Center Print Club and Stanley and Gail Richards).

“I just want people to know that we are good neighbors and have been for years and years.”
— Abdallah (Albert) Aossey, 66
Cedar Rapids resident and businessman

Did you know that Cedar Rapids is home of the first mosque built in North America? Started in the late 1920s with the help of Lebanese Christians, the Mother Mosque was completed in 1934. It seems fitting then, particularly in light of current world events, that Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids is hosting a series of six free cultural events called “Understanding Islam.” The Catholic school was founded in 1928, just about the time the mosque was getting underway. “We practically grew up together,” says college relations director Teel Salaun.

Sponsored by a generous grant from the Cedar Rapids Sisters of Mercy and presented by the Mount Mercy College Cultural Affairs Committee, this series began in late September with a visit by Khaled Hosseini, Kabul-born author of the New York Times bestseller The Kite Runner.
November features an exhibit and discussion on the work of provocative Iranian-American visual artist Shirin Neshat, a discussion on cultural heritage and community development by Cedar Rapids businessman Abdallah Aossey, and an address on understanding the Islamic religion by Imam Ahmed Elkhaldy, spiritual head of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids.

With terrorism rearing its ugly head around the world, America bogged down in a protracted war in Iraq, Afghanistan by no means out of the woods, Israel and the Palestinians seemingly further away from peace than ever, the war on terror front and center in the political arena, and the nation still reeling from the traumatic aftershocks of 9/11, this series seems like—dare I say—a godsend, not to mention a brave and timely offering from an inspired group of educators.

The idea for this series was a product of cultural committee discussions and what Ms. Salaun called “serendipity.” The incoming freshman class had chosen Hosseini’s The Kite Runner for required reading. All 1486 students enrolled at the four-year college were offered a copy. Things naturally evolved from there.

The first event was a resounding success. Recognized as the first Afghani to write a novel in English, good-looking author Khaled Hosseini spoke to a packed house of 200 students, faculty, and community members, reading from his book and answering questions. One professor said she had never seen a book “ignite such a fire in students.” Hosseini, a practicing doctor who resides in San Jose, California with his wife and two young children, told the group that returning to Kabul was a shock after leaving 27 years earlier at age 11, describing Kabul today as both horrifying and badly neglected.

Next up was a moderated discussion on Western perceptions and representations (read: misperceptions and misrepresentations) of the Middle East led by Mount Mercy communications professor Joe Sheller. The discussion followed a screening of the film Introduction to the End of an Argument. Organizers said the October 12th event was well attended and a source of lively interchange.

Award-winning journalist Anisa Mehdi, a specialist on Islam and interfaith issues, spoke at the end of October. She was the first American woman to cover the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca, a religious requirement at least once in a lifetime for all Muslims who can afford it) for broadcast in the United States. Mehdi produced and directed the National Geographic Television documentary special Inside Mecca. She has appeared on PBS’s Frontline series and ABC’s Nightline, and garnered a long line of prestigious awards in journalism.

Three events remain on the schedule. Monday, November 8, at 7 p.m. in the Flaherty Community Room in Basile Hall, Abdallah Aossey, a business leader in the vibrant Muslim community, will talk about what it means to be a Muslim in Cedar Rapids. Aossey told me his father came to America with four brothers back in 1910, finally settling in Cedar Rapids in 1927. He referred to them with a chuckle as the “original draft dodgers” for leaving Lebanon (greater Syria back then prior to partitioning after WW I) to avoid being conscripted by the militaristic Ottoman Empire.

Aossey speaks from his heart, simply and directly. He tells me Muslim people are no different than anyone else. He says people in Iowa are generally very hospitable and have always been welcoming. The first Muslims arrived in Cedar Rapids back in 1885. There’s a rich cultural heritage here.

I ask if things have been more difficult since the events of 9/11? There are always less understanding people looking to blame others, he says. Some are close-minded who group everything together and mistakenly think Islam, radical, fundamentalist, and terrorist are all the same. But that doesn’t bother him. There are fanatics in all religions. “I want people to know we have been good neighbors for years and years.”

It seems Senator Tom Harkin would agree. On July 23, 2003, he said he does not feel threatened by the enfranchisement, stature, and affluence of American Muslims. “The opposite is true. They have taken on our American values . . . just like other minorities who have come to this country. They brought their religions. They brought their customs. But they have Americanized. . . . In the state of Iowa, we have the oldest operating mosque in America.” He added that the community flourishes as an example of religious diversity and co-existence.

On Thursday, November 11, at 7 p.m. also in the Flaherty Community Room, the work of visual artist Shirin Neshat will be displayed. It was Mount Mercy Associate Professor of Art Kathryn Hagy who suggested an exhibition of Neshat’s work, which she had seen in New York City. Two panelists will present and discuss Neshat’s striking poetic and sometimes controversial imagery. They are Professor Paula Amad, assistant professor of cinema at the University of Iowa, and artist/activist Haleh Niazmand, whose own work has been exhibited at the San Diego Museum of Art and the Des Moines Art Center.

Neshat’s images are riveting, assumption challenging, enchanting. She came to the U.S. in 1974 to study art as a teen and found herself exiled from Iran in 1979 by the Islamic Revolution, unable to return till 1990. Though she’s been back several times, her depictions of Muslim women are too radically feminist to be shown there. New York Times art critic Deborah called her “Emma Bovary in a chador.” Straddling two cultures, she has an intuitive feel for the “in between,” as Professor Hagy pointed out, for capturing alluring juxtapositions that highlight Islam and the role of women. The panelists will discuss the beauty and the power of Neshat’s work as well as some of the questions they provoke from a non-Western point of view.

The final event of the series on November 22 at 7 p.m. will feature a presentation by the spiritual leader of the Cedar Rapids Mosque, Imam Ahmed Elkhaldy of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids. His talk will be on understanding the Islamic religion. There are 1200 Muslims in Cedar Rapids, according to the 2000 consensus, though estimates run three times that.

Imam Taha Tawil of the Mother Mosque estimates there are between 500 to 1000 families in the community. The Imam, originally from the West Bank, has served in Cedar Rapids for 22 years. He also said Iowans have been very hospitable for the most part, and that he was happy for the opportunity for “our voice to be heard.” This reminded me of something Ms. Salaun had told me: “We feel this series is necessary because there is so much we don’t know and need to know about each other.”

While the effect of countless images of terror depicted in gruesome news stories linked to so-called Islamic “fundamentalism” have left a number of Americans with an uneasy feeling toward the larger—and often misunderstood—Muslim world, I commend the Sisters of Mercy for their grassroots interfaith vision and embrace of multi-cultural diversity and international reality right here in the heartland.

When I convey that sentiment to Ms. Salaun, she replies, “The more we do, the more we realize how little our steps are.”

For a brief moment, I imagine how quickly things could change for the better if enough people took just such little steps, towards understanding and tolerance, towards acceptance and respect for differences, towards a genuine do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you neighborly concern for all.

Could it be understanding Islam helps us understand ourselves?
For more information, call (319) 363-8213, ext. 1229 or visit www.mtmercy.com

Things You Might Not Know About Muslims

Followers of the Islamic religion are called Muslims. Muslims may be Arabs, Turks, Iraqis, Iranians, Indians, Pakistanis, Malaysians, Indonesians, Europeans, Africans, Americans, Chinese, or other nationalities. An Arab could be a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew or an atheist. Any person who adopts the Arabic language, the language of the Qur’an (the Holy Book of Islam) is Arabic. There are about one billion Muslims in the world, 200 million of whom are Arabs. So, while Arabs are 90 percent Muslim, they make up only 20 percent of the worldwide Muslim population. As a point of reference, Catholics number roughly a billion.