Middle Eastern peace and culture were topics of conversation at the Engaging Islam and Muslims conference, which included events on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Marquette professors gave presentations regarding the perceptions and experiences of American Muslims. The campus conference was part of a larger effort to create a Middle East and North Africa Studies program within the College of Arts & Sciences.
Richard Taylor is a professor of philosophy who presented on the Islamic philosophical tradition and its influence on St. Thomas Aquinas' early work. Taylor has been involved in the planning of the MENA studies program and said the MENA title is designed to be more inclusive toward such countries as Turkey and Israel.
"It's an extraordinary undertaking to educate people (about Islam)," Taylor said.
The conference was divided into three major categories: Muslim American communities, Islam and other religions, and political and cultural Islam.
One theme of the conference was the limited knowledge among many Americans have regarding the Islamic faith and practicing Muslims. There was much discussion about the rise in negative views of Islam in the decade since 9/11.
Erin Waldschmidt, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences who has taken a sociology class about Muslims in the U.S. with social and cultural sciences assistant professor Louise Cainkar, said there is a disproportionate demonization in American minds toward the Islamic faith and those who practice it.
"Islam terrifies America," she said.
Cainkar presented the basic information from a study she recently finished and is analyzing. The study focused on interviews with American teenagers who have moved with their parents back to areas like the Palestinian territories and Yemen. Cainkar observed that those who learned their religion primarily through their parents felt that the experience overseas was enlightening. Conversely, the study indicated that those who had attended full-time Islamic schools felt that the U.S. experience was the same or better because Muslims in the U.S. are more attached to their faith.
Irfan Omar, a Marquette theology professor, talked about interfaith dialogues between Muslims, Christians and followers of other religions. He focused on scholars who have analyzed the Qu'ran to find common ground among religions.
"There are shared values and ethics across many religions," he said. "For instance, the Golden Rule is universal."
Panelists also discussed the cultural significance of clothing for Arab and Muslim women. Enaya Othman, a professor of Arabic language, interviewed seven first-generation immigrant women from Palestine who came to the U.S. during the 20th century. She discovered that most of them only began wearing the hijab, or veil, in public spaces in the past 20 years. Prior to that, there was great public pressure against wearing the hijab from the women's liberation movement, which saw the veiling of women as a display of the oppression.
All the topics led to discussion with the audience members, who brought their own experiences and frustrations with American views of Islam and Muslims.
Affnan Mohammad, a Marquette alumna who majored in Middle Eastern studies, helped Cainkar with her interviews and was a panelist at the conference, said she had partially grown up under the cloud of being seen as an immigrant or a foreigner, even in her freshman year at Marquette.
The goal of the proposed MENA studies program is to offer students an opportunity to experience a culture and a religion they may know nothing about.
"We can help our students become global citizens," Taylor said.