Depending on whom you ask, Islam is the spiritual lifeblood of more than one-fifth of the world’s population, the greatest threat to Western civilization, a foundation upon which Western civilization was built or simply a public relations nightmare. It could be one, more, or all of these. What Islam most certainly is not, though, is inescapable—which makes the idea of an American-Muslim Cultural Festival more important than ever.
In a post-9/11 world driven by short news clips and CNN sound bites, America’s view of Muslims is limited almost exclusively to Middle East violence, the dreaded shadow of al-Qaeda and the repressive Taliban. Even our political leaders act as if they know it all. “Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you. Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him,” said U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Never mind the fact that Islam is spread among more than 50 nations, two of which—Pakistan and Indonesia—have been led by women. Never mind the fact that, from 700 to 1300 A.D., the Muslim world flourished amid scientific and artistic advances while medieval Europe languished. And, never mind the fact that in Moorish Spain, Muslims, Jews and Christians all lived together in relative peace and harmony until the medieval Catholic Church, along with Ferdinand and Isabella, ruined the fun.
Islam and Christianity haven’t always been at odds. Many early Muslims found refuge from persecution in Christian Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia). Between the end of the church crusades and the start of European colonialism, however, good will was scarce.
With the industrial West striving for stability and oil on one hand, and Middle Eastern nations struggling to find a place in the modern world on the other, pessimists would say improved relations are a long way off. The optimist, though, believes the distance is made shorter through education and getting to know your neighbor. Even in Salt Lake City, chances are good that one of your neighbors may one day be, or already is, a Muslim. Our valley hosts two mosques, plus an Islamic Center.
Ghulam H. Hasnain, editor of the Salt Lake American Muslim newsletter and a software developer born in India, hopes his fellow Muslims learn to make themselves more and more visible. “We need to take initiatives—come out and be visible,” Hasnain said. “Just because there are people in the form of terrorists who are ill-informed even about the nature of their own religion, that doesn’t mean we have to be embarrassed about ourselves and hide in the woodwork. We are very hard-working people with a lot to share, and we want to share it with other people.”
That sort of cultural cross-pollination hits the Gallivan Center Sept. 7 in the form of the Salt Lake American-Muslim Cultural Festival. Persian music group Ava, Geenie Baggs and Pakistani musician Amoon Javed will perform. More than 25 booths will offer wares, including “halal” (the Islamic version of kosher) food provided by various caterers and local restaurants. As per Islamic code, this is an alcohol-free event. Hasnain was wary, however, of making this a strictly Muslim affair. Speakers from other ethnic communities and local religious denominations will help emcee the affair. So will Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.
“I know many Muslims in this community, and they’re as kind and generous a people as you could ever find,” Anderson said. “Stereotypes and bigotry dissolve when we get to know people beyond the abstractions of the media. Community events like this give people the opportunity to do just that.”
Utah Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, also agreed to make an appearance. “It’s an opportunity to make connections with people who come from a different place than yourself,” Litvack said. “Also, being Jewish, there’s a personal sense of responsibility to be part of any effort to make connections with the Muslim community given what happens in the Middle East. With the Muslim community, there’s always a personal tie there.”
For Hasnain, cultivating peaceful relations between people is part of Islam, an activity made all the easier in America. “Here, you have that kind of freedom, and I’m grateful for it,” he said.