FAITH IN ACTION
By Katherine Marshall
We often bemoan the fact that we Americans have, to put it charitably, large gaps in our understanding of Islam as a religion and of the endlessly complex Muslim world.
Ignorance contributes to the global tensions that some call the “clash of civilizations”. It makes it harder to deal with the day-to-day challenges of international interactions as well as with conflicts and hot spots. After 9/11 there was a blizzard of talks, books, and articles, the most intensive public education effort in recent memory, but, depressingly, polls suggest that the knowledge gaps today are, if anything, worse than they were in the summer of 2001.
A pageant that opens in New York on June 5, Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas, sets out to fill some of the gaps and to challenge or change the preconceptions Americans have about Muslims. The effort goes beyond talk and debate, joining many art forms with a formidable intellectual agenda. Zeyba Rahman, the project manager, who has labored for years to bring it together, describes it as “the largest event of its kind, ever, in the U.S.”
The festival features a feast of cultural events, especially music, but also theater, poetry, and visual arts. Youssef N’Dour, the popular Senegalese singer, is the opening name but there’s a real mosaic of different acts, from all the continents–Koranic recitation, whirling dervishes, sufi chants, you name it. A parallel conference has a lineup of well known intellectuals. There are programs for schools, and the New York Public Library will host a series of exchanges around the provocative theme: “insult”. The Festival’s principal organizers are the Asia Society, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the New York University Center for Dialogues; an impressive roster of foundations has come up with funding despite their depleted coffers.
The festival draws people from many parts of the world, but what is particularly striking is the key role that America’s extraordinarily diverse Muslim communities are playing in putting it together. Just in New York City there are dozens of Muslim communities, with their roots all over the world – Senegal, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Iran, and so on. They contribute artists but have also helped shape the event from the start.
For example, the original title of the Festival was “Illuminating Islam”. The advisory group thrashed the title out and concluded that it could be misconstrued – Americans in their munificence shedding light on Muslim cultures. So it was changed. They see great hope in this opportunity to hammer home the point of the diversity and rich heritage of the Muslim world and its commitment to engage.
“Cultural diplomacy” is one of those phrases that can mean very different things to different people – diplomacy that is nuanced to different cultures, a symphony orchestra performing in North Korea to open doors, or improbable sports events link touring ping pong teams. Perhaps the most promising avenue for cultural diplomacy is to help break through barriers that owe much to sheer ignorance or prejudice. Culture is about identity and history, but it is also about emotion and it can bring joy and insight. Marveling at the trance of whirling dervishes or struggling to follow a long sufi chant can pave the way to a different kind of discussion about respect and insult. So here’s wishing the ambitious New York Festival success and joy!
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Proessor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.
By Katherine Marshall |
June 1, 2009; 11:54 AM ET
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