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COMMENTARY: Mississippi Muslims

c. 2003 Religion News Service (Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author most recently of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.) (UNDATED) I would not recommend traveling in the United States on Sept. 11, especially if your […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author most recently of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.)

(UNDATED) I would not recommend traveling in the United States on Sept. 11, especially if your name is Ahmed.

The security is so tight at the airports that it is difficult to breath. The atmosphere crackles with tension. Announcements over the loudspeaker systems every few minutes remind passengers to look out for “suspicious-looking” packages left by suspicious-looking people. In the meantime the media constantly remind us why racial profiling is essential to identify “as suspicious-looking people” those associated with one particular part of the world. So as not to miss the point, they even remind us that none of the hijackers was a blue-eyed blond with a Scandinavian racial background.

But I was on my way from Washington to Jackson, Miss., on a mission of dialogue and was not discouraged. This was my first visit to Mississippi _ land of William Faulkner, Oprah, Tennessee Williams, Faith Hill and B.B. King.

And when I arrived at Jackson my host, the Rev. Donald Fortenberry, chaplain at Millsaps College, met me so warmly that all my fatigue and anxiety vanished. Millsaps College is one of the finest educational institutions in Mississippi. It provided intellectual and moral leadership during the difficult days of the civil rights movement.

I had been invited to deliver a lecture _ “Islam: Challenge of the Past and the Way Ahead After Iraq.”

I had first come across the name Mississippi in Abbotabad in the hills of north Pakistan where I studied as a boy. It was through an LP record of Dean Martin singing Dixie songs. His rendering of “Mississippi Mud” intrigued me. I also read Mark Twain with interest. I was fascinated by the culture of the American South and its great river that seems to symbolize American culture and history.

I was now, finally, in Mississippi almost half a century after I had heard the name.

Before my lecture I was invited by the Muslim community to visit the recently established International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson. The Andalusian arches, tiles and fountains created an atmosphere that reminded me of the time in Muslim Spain when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in harmony. I was delighted to meet members of the Muslim community who represented the main streams of Islam in the United States: African-American, Arab and South Asian.

They came to my lecture at Millsaps and added to the dialogue that took place that day.

“It would be difficult for me to over-emphasize how delighted we were to have you on the Millsaps campus yesterday,” Fortenberry wrote after the event. “The size of the audience, which included many persons from the Jackson community, as well as Millsaps faculty, staff and students, was all we had hoped for and indicated, I think, the level of concern on our campus about issues related to Iraq, our relationship to the Islamic world, and the impact of these issues on the future. I have struggled to remember an occasion when the prolonged applause and standing ovation so clearly indicated deep appreciation for what a speaker had done.”

Azam Mohammed, a board member of the museum and a South Asian Muslim, wrote an article on the occasion of my lecture, “Happy to be a Muslim,” which is revealing:

“I started wondering how deeply we Muslims were affected by Sept. 11 and the following events. Those 19 hijackers were directly linked to millions of Muslims around the world. … Suddenly Islam came under attention and Muslims were pushed under the spotlight. Islam became the topic of talk shows. Muslims’ values were ridiculed and Islam’s prophet was insulted. Books were written with the sole motive to propagate the popular misconceptions of Islam. Muslim civilization and Islam became the adversary of Western values.

“Sept. 11 affected all of us and in some ways Muslims have become its real victims. The ghastly act of the 19 terrorists had become the prelude to the death and destruction of Afghans, the invasion of Iraq, the massacre of Gujarati Muslims in India, the plight of Chechens and Kashmiri Muslims.

“With these questions in my mind and a sense of hopelessness I reached the auditorium at Millsaps’ campus. The auditorium was packed with people. I found a place on the steps facing the podium and settled myself for one of the best speeches I would ever hear on Islam and Muslims in the present context.

“Dr. Ahmed’s presence and speech acted as a balm on our psychic wounds inflicted by Sept. 11 and I believe it also gave the right perspective for non-Muslim Americans to look on the Muslim world.”

Azam said he felt uplifted by the dialogue. “His (my) confidence and calmness in some way lightened my heart and that afternoon after a long time I genuinely felt happy to be a Muslim.”

For me, the compassion and concern for dialogue of the Rev. Fortenberry and Azam Mohammed _ and that of the Mississippi Muslims _ gave me hope for the future.

DEA END AHMED