Islam In the Heart Of Dixie

Students from the Muslim Academy in Gretna, La., check out the International Museum of Muslim Culture, which director Okolo Rashid, below, calls the only Islamic museum in the country.
Students from the Muslim Academy in Gretna, La., check out the International Museum of Muslim Culture, which director Okolo Rashid, below, calls the only Islamic museum in the country." Objects in the "Legacy of Timbuktu" exhibition include a traditional drum. (Photos By Rogelio V. Solis -- Associated Press)
By Kathy Hanrahan
Associated Press
Sunday, January 7, 2007

JACKSON, Miss. This mid-size Southern city with its thriving Baptist, Methodist and Catholic churches may seem an unlikely home for one of the museums in the United States devoted entirely to Muslim culture.

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 an 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, according to the museum's Okolo Rashid, 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," Rashid said.

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, Rashid said.

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.

Organizers said the museum's education objective began to pay dividends as public schools started bringing children to learn more about the culture.


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