Mehnaz Afridi, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York, is one of the many librarians and humanities council directors preparing to promote the pro-Islam "Muslim Journeys bookshelf" from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). (See "Stacking library shelves" by Marvin Olasky from the just released issue of WORLD Magazine.) Afridi plans to invite local scholars to lead discussions based on the resources, and she's not alone: Up to 125 Muslim Journey bookshelf recipients will receive a secondary grant provided by the American Library Association (ALA) called "Let's Talk About It: Muslim Journeys," which will fund discussion series in local libraries and humanities councils.
ALA project director Lainie Castle told me of her hope "that these programs will … bring people of all backgrounds together." But Afridi explained she has invited feminists Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed to offer a narrower focus: "To deconstruct the negative images" many American have about Islam. When pressed as to what those negative images might be, Afridi responded, "That Muslims are violent and women are oppressed."
Adam Francisco, who holds a doctorate in the history of Christian-Muslim relations from Oxford University, believes that Christians should treat Muslims with friendliness, not prejudice, but he added that Muslim Journeys resources reveal another kind of prejudice common in academia: Scholars "outside the circle of approved voices … are often dismissed without any consideration." He has seen serious conversations about al-Qaeda derailed in the classroom because "any discussion about it is undermined right off the bat by accusations of xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc."
Francisco described a deep divide among scholars on topics like jihad and the history of the Quran and Muhammad's life. The divide became so profound in 2007, numerous scholars—including the eminent scholar Bernard Lewis—broke away from their professional association, the Middle East Studies Association, and started the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). These scholars wanted to escape what Lewis called the "deadly hand of political correctness"—yet the Muslim Journeys bookshelf represents only the politically correct side of this debate, Francisco noted.
According to Eva Caldera, NEH assistant chairman for partnership and strategic initiatives, the NEH and ALA encourage libraries and humanities councils to include voices across the political spectrum in Muslim Journeys discussions. She noted that one library has invited young adults to discuss Persepolis, a graphic novel critical of Iran's dictatorial government, while another features an ex-military officer who served in the Middle East. But is it reasonable to expect most library directors, looking to the ALA and NEH for guidance, to correct the bias of the original resources? Maybe—if patrons care enough to find out about the issues and demand that libraries live up to their claim of being neutral town squares.