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Islam at the ROCK
Posted March 27th, 2013

National Endowment for the Humanities “Muslim Journeys” program elicits both praise and controversy

Front page, full page article and photo promoting new "Understanding of Islam" program

Front page, full page article and photo promoting new “Understanding of Islam” program

BY MICHAEL RICONDA

A new library program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and benefitting Rockland Community College has raised questions on public funding going to what some activists have characterized as religious programs.

The Muslim Journeys Bookshelf is a program developed by the American Library Association and National Endowment for the Humanities. As part of the program, 953 libraries and universities in all 50 states will receive a package of 25 books, three films, and a one-year subscription to Oxford Islamic Studies Online, all meant to educate the general public on Muslim ideas, history and culture.

Rockland Community College (RCC) has been named the recipient of the “Muslim Journeys Bookshelf Award.” The news was momentous enough to earn a front-page, full-page announcement in the college’s winter newsletter SCENE.

Sarah Levy, RCC’s interim library director, said, “The Bookshelf Award is intended as a springboard for dialogue between varying religions and cultures. Our work has just begun as we create programs to promote community discussion and build bridges between diverse cultures and faiths.”

The Bookshelf project’s development and distribution was funded in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art which were distributed to libraries from the ALA after a competitive application process, but the project also received assistance from the NEH.

Award recipients also have the opportunity to apply for future grants from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and Institute of International Education (IIE) for NEH’s broader “Bridging Cultures” Initiative. The Initiative encourages institutions to organize programs encouraging public discussion related to the Muslim Journeys theme.

Critics have called foul over what they consider to be promotion of Islam with public funds. Author and noted critic of Islam, Robert Spencer, called the program a “one-sided” presentation which whitewashes what he considers violent aspects of the Muslim religion.

“This isn’t the only aspect of Islam that exists, but it is one that any program that is truly comprehensive would certainly discuss, especially in the light of escalating Muslim persecution of Christians and other non-Muslims around the world and the ongoing threat of terrorism,” Spencer explained.

Spencer went on to explain that though he would not oppose Islamic studies alongside studies of other faiths, there is a need to explore both the positive and negative aspects of religions with a more objective approach, if public funding is involved.

The Muslim Journeys program was also challenged by South Carolina Congressman Walter Jones (R – Third District), who objected to what he saw as misuse of federal money to promote the Muslim religion at Craven Community College in New Bern.

“It makes zero sense for the U.S. government to borrow money from China in order to promote the culture of Islamic civilizations,” Jones explained.

According to ALA Public Programs Office Director Lainie Castle, official feedback on the program from libraries was forthcoming, but participant reactions have been almost universally positive.

“We have gotten a lot of positive feedback in terms of addressing a community need for information,” Castle explained.

Castle also explained the hope was not only to inform readers on Muslim culture, but also to encourage discussion, explore public perceptions of Islam and discuss continued questions on its role in American life.

NEH public affairs specialist Paula Wasley shed light on the program’s selection process, explaining the bookshelf funding was determined not by a particular social agenda, but by a panel of outside experts which included scholars and library experts before being approved by the NEH director.

Projects teaching about most major world religions have received grants through the program in the past five+ years including several awards for projects about Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism, one for Hasidic Judaism, and a few for Christianity.

The Bookshelf is the first program for both the ALA and NEH related specifically to Islam, but only one of many programs with a focus on a particular religion. For example, in 2011 and 2012, the ALA offered seven rounds of grants for programs on Jewish literature and a travelling exhibit on the King James Version of the Bible, while the NEH announced it would be sponsoring a fellowship through the Center for Jewish History in the 2012-2013.

Administrators at RCC and local Muslims were enthusiastic about RCC’s involvement. RCC Communications Director Tzipora Reitman noted the grant was consistent with the college’s dedication to pluralism and diversity.