MUSEUM TOUTS MUSLIM CULTURE IN BIBLE BELT MISSISSIPPI
JACKSON Miss. - This mid-sized Southern city with its thriving
Baptist, Methodist and Catholic churches may seem an unlikely home for
one of the only museums in the United States devoted entirely to
Still, the International Museum of Muslim Culture opened in April
2001, an attempt by organizers to educate their churchgoing neighbors
about a faith that many viewed as mysterious, possibly violent.
The museum is right at home in Jackson's downtown art district, which
continues to host the international ballet competition every four
years and, for several years, was home to traveling exhibitions of
culture and art treasures from around the world.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, museum executive director Okolo
Rashid said the project in Mississippi has taken on added
significance, particularly since many people have serious
misconceptions about Muslims and their culture.
"And, of course, after 9/11 and even prior to that, the whole thing
about terrorism that Muslims are terrorists and Muslims are violent
and really not understanding any of the contributions or the
significant influence that Muslims have had on the Western world,"
The museum was born of an idea to create a companion to the "Majesty
of Spain" exhibition featuring works from the Prado and other
prominent museums that was showing at the Mississippi Arts Pavilion,
The Muslim museum opened near the Arts Pavilion with an exhibition
titled "Islamic Moorish Spain: Its Legacy to Europe and the West."
Rashid said the response to the show encouraged her and museum board
chairman Emad Al-Turk to keep the museum open past its scheduled
closing date at the end of September 2001.
"As we traveled and promoted the exhibit nationally, we found that we
were the only Islamic museum in the country," Rashid said.
Rabiah Ahmed, communications coordinator for the Washington D.C.-based
Council on American-Islamic Relations, said most Muslim exhibitions
are relegated to portions of existing museums. She said she knows of
no other museum in the United States dedicated entirely to Muslim culture.
"In this day and age when there are so many misconceptions about
Islam, establishing a museum about Islam's history in America and
Muslims in general is another way for Americans to learn about their
neighbors and the history of our country," Ahmed said.
Only one act of violence has occurred at the museum: A brick was
thrown into the front window, days after 9/11. . .
An estimated 30,000 people have visited the museum, which has become a
place to showcase the role Muslims have played in the history of the
state's development and foster an understanding of the culture's
The museum's first home, a small, one-story building, was razed to
make way for a new city convention center. Now, the museum is housed
about a block away, on the second floor of the Mississippi Arts Center.
The museum's current exhibit, "The Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the
Written Word," opened in late November. The "Islamic Moorish Spain"
exhibition also is being reinstalled in the new facility.
The Timbuktu show features handwritten manuscripts donated from the
city's Mama Haidara Manuscript Library. The documents, some dating
back more than 700 years, help establish the literate culture of
Africa, Rashid said.
Library general manager Abdel Kader Haidara traveled from Timbuktu, a
city in the Western Africa country of Mali, to attend the exhibition's
opening on Nov. 28. Speaking through an interpreter, Haidara said it
was important to reintroduce the manuscripts to the world. Haidara
stressed a message of peace, equality and tolerance that he feels the
world needs to understand about the Islamic culture. . .
An estimated 7 million Muslims live in the United States, according to
Ahmed. The Pluralism Project, a study done by Harvard University, said
about 4,000 Muslims live in Mississippi; the state's population is
about 2.9 million.
Ahmed believes museums and exhibitions that focus on the history of
the Islamic culture can help society see that the religion is a part
of the "fabric of society."
"It's also a sign to show the maturity and the integration in Muslims
in the U.S.," Ahmed said.
On the Net:
International Museum of Muslim Cultures: http://www.muslimmuseum.org
The Pluralism Project: http://www.pluralism.org
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