What is the role of Islam in the Muslim world today? And can faith communities build bridges between civilizations despite extremism?
Those are two questions that will addressed Saturday by Delaware faith leaders meeting with a visiting delegation of Muslim scholars from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
They are arriving this week to meet University of Delaware students and faculty, the World Affairs Council of Wilmington, members of Masjid Ibrahim in Newark and scholars at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
The dialogues are part of a seven-city U.S. tour. And on Saturday the public is invited to a free Wilmington dialogue from 10 a.m. to noon at Westminster Presbyterian Church at Pennsylvania Avenue and Rodney Street. Free parking is at Rodney and 13th streets.
"People have all these monolithic notions about Islam and one of our goals is to challenge some of those assumptions through conversations with all sorts of people in the United States," said Dr. Muqtedar Khan, associate professor of political science and international relations and director of UD's Islamic Studies Program, and the Center for International Studies.
A noted American Muslim scholar, Khan put together the tour with a $494,368 grant from the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. The tour is called "Faith and Community: A Dialogue."
Later this year a group of American scholars will travel to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to take part in similar activities in those countries. The exchange will repeat in 2010. And in announcing the grant last February, Khan said a documentary film is planned of the visit to the U.S.
A total of nine scholars may arrive in Delaware but Khan said he's had trouble with U.S. visas and expects only six to seven to make the tour.
They are scholars, such as Dr. Soraya Altorki, author of "Women in Saudi Arabia: Ideology and Behavior Among" and professor of anthropology in the American University in Cairo.
Another is Dr. Sami Angawi, a renowned expert on Islamic architecture in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The tour includes Newark, Wilmington and Philadelphia (Jan 6-10), New York City (Jan 11-13), Washington (Jan 13-19), Los Angeles (Jan19 -22) and Chicago (Jan 22-26).
Pastor Tom Davis is among those looking forward to the Saturday dialogue at Westminster. Retired from pastoral duties at Hanover Presbyterian Church on Baynard Boulevard, Davis is among 11 people who've been invited to engage with the scholars on Saturday.
Davis helped initiate local interfaith events after Sept. 11 and realized that fear and suspicion would grow if faith communities failed to get to know each other. One of the results: An interfaith Thanksgiving service now held annually in Wilmington.
He said people will want to discuss the war in Gaza. Another topic that worries Americans is Islamic extremists, though this hasn't been a pressing issue in Delaware mosques, where peaceful teachings hold sway, he said.