Experts talk on Islam in post-9/11 America

At a discussion in the Perkins Library Rare Book Room Thursday night, two scholars pointed to decentralization and organization as the defining dynamics of American Muslim communities in the 21st century.

The talk, titled "Islam in America Post 9/11," featured Kambiz Ghaneabassiri, assistant professor of religion and humanities at Reed College, and Peter Skerry, professor of political science at Boston College. It was the third program in the Kenan Institute for Ethics' Changing Institutional Cultures Lecture Series.

But despite the talk's putative focus on Sept. 11, both speakers emphasized the longer-term assimilation of Muslims into American culture and systems, minimizing the importance of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Ghaneabassiri said Sept. 11 was simply a major chapter in a story that began with the first Gulf War, which cast Saudi Arabian "petrodollars"-traditionally a cash cow for American Muslim groups-in a negative light.

"The war pushed Muslims toward independence from predominately Muslim governments and pushed mosques away from affiliations," he said. "It also made Muslims realize they were in a unique position-as Americans and as Muslims-to influence world events if they organized themselves."

During his portion of the talk, Skerry said many Americans are concerned with potential foreign influences on American Muslims-much as they were with Japanese citizens during World War II or Catholics in the 19th century.

"To me, there's a pointed question, which I think is the ultimate question, and that's the political loyalty of American Muslims," he said. "I don't question it, but American people have it on their minds."

Both scholars said many Muslims have fully embraced the American political system as a method of expressing their political and social views.

"The mantra among American Muslims is that if you organize, the American system is fair and you will succeed," Ghaneabassiri said. "It's interesting that this is very different from the experience of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in predominately Muslim countries."

Skerry added that though Muslims have assimilated well, many advocacy groups have made uneasy alliances with liberal groups based on political views. He said differing social values may cause internal friction in the future, but assimilation will remain strong.

Noah Pickus, interim director of the Kenan Institute and the discussion's moderator, required students from the Visions of Freedom Focus cluster-in which he teaches-to attend the lecture.

"I think it serves a couple of purposes for the students," Pickus said. "It breaks down the barrier between 'this is a class' and 'these are ideas.' It brings things up from class and brings things back to class."

But freshman Isaac He, a student in the cluster, said he found faults with the discussion. "It kind of reflects that there are some issues that, even in an intellectual setting, you can't discuss," he said, citing discrimination as an example. "People are overly conscious when dealing with these issues, but I would have liked to have heard them discussed in detail."


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