Muslims counter ignorance with US library campaign

To help counter what it sees as "a rising tide of anti-Muslim rhetoric" in US society, a national Islamic civil rights group has come up with a particularly American response. It has launched a grass-roots campaign to get Muslims to sponsor educational materials for local public libraries.

The goal is to place a package of books, videos, and audio cassettes - called "Explore Islamic Culture and Civilization" - in as many of the country's 16,000 libraries as possible.

"It's important that Americans know what Islam stands for," says Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). "The lack of timely and accurate books in libraries ... [results in a] knowledge gap that leads to increased misunderstanding and produces unnecessary divisions between people of faith."

Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans rushed to bookstores in search of information on Islam. Over the past year, many books that Muslims consider distortions or outright attacks on the faith have hit the market, with authors plying their views on TV and radio. Evangelist Franklin Graham condemned the faith as "evil" during interviews related to his latest book. Pat Robertson has criticized President Bush for distinguishing between Islam and those who "have hijacked a great religion." Some political conservatives have recently joined the bandwagon.

CAIR has put together an 18-item package on Islam and Muslims that it considers accurate and accessible for adults and children. Library visitors, for example, can select from the most respected English translation of the sacred text - "The Meaning of the Holy Quran," by Abdullah Yusuf Ali; biographies of the prophet Muhammad; videos on Islamic culture and civilization; an award-winning children's book on Ramadan; books on gender issues in Islam; and even "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam."

The package also includes "The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?" by John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University.

Muslims can sponsor a package for their community library for $150. A pilot project in the Los Angeles area placed 2,500 books and videos in 166 libraries. With the increased public interest after 9/11, "we were happy to get the donation and add to our collection," says Charlene Klink of the Los Angeles city library, which got 740 items. "It's part of our mission to learn about other cultures, and we have copies of the Koran in Spanish." So far, donations have been made to 4,300 libraries.

CAIR also recently published a guide to Islam on this continent - "The North American Muslim Resource Guide" (Routledge) - which describes the history of Islam in the US and Canada and the makeup of Muslim communities.

"Every night somewhere a program defames Islam," Omar Ahmad of CAIR told a Muslim audience earlier this fall. "This is our time and we must deliver our message."

Muslims are reaching out to the broader community in various ways. During the holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week, the Muslim Student Association at MIT, for example, hosted three dinners for 500 guests, followed by Q&A sessions.

Prominent American Muslims have joined voices in a new book, "Taking Back Islam" (Rodale), in which they share their perspectives on issues such as violence, democracy, pluralism, and women in Islam.

And on Dec. 18, PBS will premier "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet," a documentary that explores the prophet's life and what it means to Muslim Americans.

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