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Scholars dig into Muslim culture

APU: Goal is to puncture myths, misunderstandings about religion.


Published: October 7, 2007
Last Modified: October 7, 2007 at 06:21 AM

A new Alaska Pacific University project is giving Alaskans an opportunity to study and discuss Muslim culture.

"Engaging Muslims: Religion, Cultures, Politics" is the work of Regina Boisclair, Cardinal Newman Chair of Catholic Theology at APU -- along with UAA, Wayland Baptist University, the Islamic Community Center of Anchorage Alaska and others.

The Newman Chair received a $300,000 grant from Larry and Wilma Carr to develop a program on religion and public life.

To decide how to spend the money, Boisclair and others met with members of the Anchorage religious community to select a topic. The project kicked off in August with a series of standing-room-only lectures by John Borelli, an expert in interreligious dialogue from Georgetown University.

"We wanted to get the community to start thinking about how to work this into their yearlong programming," project director Mary-Margaret Stein said of the fall lectures. "There was almost a sigh of relief that someone is ready to start talking about this."

Recently, Boisclair talked about the project in her office in Grant Hall on the APU campus. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What spurred you to develop this project?

A. We're at war in two Muslim countries, we have a growing Muslim population in the United States. Islam, if it isn't already, is close to being the second-largest religion in the United States. We have a large community of Muslims in Anchorage, and we have no Muslim scholars or scholars of Islam in this state. It seemed appropriate to use this money on ... something we don't have the resources to put together ourselves locally on a topic that is never going to go away.

Q. Why is it important for the general public to understand Islam?

A. So that they don't go around thinking Muslims worship another god, so they don't go around thinking these people are evil, so they come to recognize that the Muslim world condemns terrorism.

Westerners have a long history of prejudice, suspicion and fear of Islam going back thousands of years. But Islam is part of the of the family tradition -- it's one of the three Middle Eastern monotheisms, of which Judaism and Christianity are the others. They all have one god, anointed humans, sacred texts, community who observe prayer, fasting and alms-giving and go on pilgrimage. What we have is difficulties in the family.

Q. What myth about Islam is widely held as truth by Americans?

A. Many Americans believe that all Muslims are fundamentalists. Particularly that the women, as they dress, must necessarily be fundamentalists; that if you are truly in one of the more moving-forward branches of Islam, you wouldn't wear hijab. That is not true at all.

Q. What things about Islam would surprise us, if we knew?

A. (Muslims) invented algebra. The Mother Mosque (the first mosque built in North America) is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The whole foundation of the Western Renaissance and enlightenment came out of Islamic scholarship. The philosophical background to Thomas Aquinas' great works came out of Islamic scholarship.

Q. What do you want this project to achieve?

A. From the beginning, there was a plan that this project would be of such quality that it will hopefully become a model for how other communities can self-educate.


Find Rose Cox online at or call 257-4469.


'Engaging Muslims' at APU

Here's how you can participate in "Engaging Muslims: Religion, Cultures, Politics" at Alaska Pacific University:

Visit the Engaging Muslims Web site at for recommended books, films, event updates and links to other sites.

Attend the "Train the Trainers" film series, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, 21 and 30 at the Holy Spirit Center, 10980 Hillside Drive. Watch and discuss "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet" and "Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain." RSVP by calling 346-2343.

Attend a public lecture Nov. 8 by Maryam Qudrat Aseel, author of "Torn Between Two Cultures: An Afghan-American Woman Speaks Out," location to be announced.

Read "The Swallows of Kabul" by Yasmina Khadra and "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood. Discussion guides will be available on the Web site.

Audit Boisclair's spring class "Engaging Islam," Feb. 7 through April 25 at APU. The fee is $100.

Attend the spring lecture series: Feb. 20: Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan on contemporary issues in Islam; March 2: Muzammil Siddiqi, counsel to President Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; March 30: Islamic Society of North America president Ingrid Mattson on Islamic law.; April 20: John Esposito, professor of international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, on Islam and the future of American foreign policy.

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