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Last modified: Tuesday, February 17, 2009

IU program about Islam honored with human rights award, additional national support

Feb. 17, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama's middle name -- Hussein -- frequently was used to present an inaccurate perception that he was a Muslim.

"Few questioned why being a Muslim was seen as something to be secretive about, or why many considered it wrong or immoral," said Hilary E. Kahn, associate director of the Center for the Study of Global Change at Indiana University. "The media and the Obama campaign tried hard to correct the public's mistaken perception about the candidate's religious affiliation, but rarely addressed the underlying question of what was wrong with being a Muslim or electing a Muslim to be president."

Understanding Islam has been challenging for many Americans. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, strengthened existing barriers to mutual understanding, but there also is a long history, said Kahn, co-coordinator of the IU project "Voices and Visions: Islam and Muslims from a Global Perspective."

Since its inception last year, Voices and Visions hasn't shied away from such issues. As a result, this consortium of six Title VI National Resource Centers at IU, led by the Center for the Study of Global Change, is being recognized for its efforts to counter misperceptions and improve understanding about the second most practiced religion in the world.

On Wednesday (Feb. 18), Bloomington's Human Rights Commission will recognize Voices and Visions with its annual Human Rights Award. The project has also been awarded a second grant from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), valued at nearly $100,000. The SSRC last year provided a $96,600 grant to launch Voices and Visions.

Kahn, who is directing Voices and Visions with Brian Winchester, said the project has exceeded expectations and redefined the notion of public scholarship on the IU Bloomington campus. It has produced several successful public events, audio podcasts and a blog which are available on the organization's Web site. The site has had thousands of visitors from around the world, including from across the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Rosemary Pennington, a graduate student in the IU School of Journalism, has been the project coordinator.

In collaboration with the Bloomington Area Arts Council, Visions and Voices is hosting an exhibit of community-produced tactile and media art on the subject of Islam and the Muslim world at the John Waldron Arts Center, 122 S Walnut St., from Feb. 6-28. A public forum, "Expressions of Islam," will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturday (Feb. 21) in connection with the exhibit.

"I am continuously surprised at the energy that has been created and the support that it has received -- and how many people are really dedicated to providing a more engaging and balanced view on the topic of Islam," Kahn said of Voices and Visions. "I'm amazed at how many people have been drawn to this project and how it has generated its own enthusiasm and really moved onward."

From the beginning, Voices and Visions has been an ambitious project, she said. It is funded through the SSRC's Academics in the Public Sphere program, and its primary focus has been to take expertise and research by IU scholars on Islam to the people.

"This has been able to create scholarship that is not only for academics . . . This is a whole new form of representation for scholarly material, and it's one that has to be engaging," Kahn said. "We are really shooting at reaching people who never necessarily think that they need to know anything about Islam, and that's a very difficult audience to target."

Primarily, the project has been promoted locally, but plans now call for taking it to a wider audience. In addition to audio podcasts, Voices and Visions will partner with IU's public broadcasting outlets to produce video podcasts. It also will expand its reach through resources provided by IU Press.

The program will direct efforts toward the business community and the media. It is organizing a conference in Bloomington for Midwest religion writers and other journalists, "Uncovering Islam: Representing, Reporting, and Responsibilities," on March 27, featuring Jamie Tarabay of National Public Radio.

When most Americans think about Muslims, they rarely reflect on people in their own communities, who work alongside them, gather to worship at local mosques and get their children ready to attend the same schools, Kahn notes. For example, few realize that one-fifth of all U.S. Muslims are African Americans.

The project has received informal feedback indicating that there's been some success in raising understanding.

"Some of the feedback we've gotten back has been about the simple things. Someone wrote back and said they didn't know that Muslims believed in angels, or that it's an Abrahamic faith. That basic historical fact is really unknown," said Kahn.

"We're not only teaching about Islam. It's also the demystification of it. We're providing access to the lives of Muslims so there is recognition that they are so similar in terms of desires and values, that they are a reflection of all of us, as if we're looking into a mirror."

Other IU partners in the project have been the African Studies Program, the Center for International Business and Education Research, the East Asian Studies Center, the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, the IU School of Journalism, IU Press, the Middle East Islamic Studies Program, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and the Russian and Eastern European Institute, West European Studies, WFIU and WTIU.