As the United States has grown more religiously diverse over the years, Islamic culture has become a larger part of the American fabric. Now it even has a connection to the Oval Office. Though President Barack Obama was raised as a Christian by his Kansan mother, his father was a Muslim of Kenyan descent.
However, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many Muslims have argued that they are unfairly and negatively portrayed in the media and continue to be marginalized in their everyday lives.
To help paint a fuller picture, the Boston Muslim Interfaith Council of the American Islamic Congress (AIC) — an international nonprofit advocacy organization with offices in Boston, Washington, Egypt and Iraq — is hosting a series of public forums called “Diversity in the Muslim World: Between Pluralism & Division” this week and next to explore different aspects of Muslim life rarely seen in American popular culture.
“This program is about addressing myths about Muslims,” said Nasser Weddady, AIC’s civil rights outreach director. “Since 9/11, there have been misconceptions of Muslims, but we are more than just about theology.”
The first talk, held Monday evening at Boston University, dealt with the topic of Muslim life in black Africa. Islam is the predominant religion in Africa, followed by Christianity. It is believed that the practice of Islam arrived in Africa around the first century A.D., when Muslims fleeing persecution in Mecca arrived in northeast Africa, at the time called the Aksumite Empire.
Fallou Ngom, assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University, said that many in his homeland of Senegal show their love for Islam through their personal appearance. He specifically cited the choice made by some Senegalese men to wear dreadlocks as a sign of their devotion to their work.
While dreadlocks are also a common trait of Rastafarians, reggae singers and hippies around the world, the hairstyle has a different connotation in West Africa.
“Traditionally, people with dreadlocks are dedicated to taking care of their families and communities,” Ngom said. “Dreadlocks are a show of devotion, and work is worship.”
Khalid Kodi, a Boston-based Sudanese painter, illustrator and a graphic designer, said he wants people to know that there is more to his home country than the much-publicized genocide in Darfur. According to Kodi, Sudan is also a racially, ethnically and geographically diverse nation.
“The Sudanese are not victims,” he said. “They are productive people who grow their own foods and take care of their own families.”
Kodi did say that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s behavior in Darfur has given the country a bad name, but added that he is not the only world leader with bad “political etiquette.”
“Americans always ask me about what it is like to have a bad guy as president,” Kodi said. “I tell them, ‘Well, you had President Bush.’”
Moctar Sakho, a Suffolk University graduate student, came to the United States 15 years ago from Senegal. In his time here, he said, he has noticed differences in how African American Muslims worship as compared to their Muslim counterparts in Africa.
African American Muslims — who make up approximately one-third of the Muslim population in the U.S., according to a recent study from the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies — have historically used the religion as a vessel for political activism, most notably through the Nation of Islam. On the continent of Africa, it’s more about spiritual guidance.
Sakho lived in the Midwest before moving to Boston three years ago. He said that while he finds Boston to be more religiously tolerant of Muslims than St. Louis, being black and Muslim in America is still not easy. However, he said he hopes that the new president in the White House is a sign that the country is becoming more accepting of diversity in all forms.
“We Muslims are here too, and we might be different in some ways, but we are all Americans,” he said.
For more information about the “Diversity in the Muslim World: Between Pluralism & Division” public speaking series, visit http://www.muslimdiversity.org.
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