For more than a year, a national group of scholars, businessmen and religious leaders had sought ways to counter the negative views of the Islamic world that they felt most Americans held.
They formed the National Committee to Honor the Fourteenth Centennial of Islam and sought funds from business and private donors for a multiyear series of cultural events, films, lectures and a traveling exhibit of Islamic art. It was all to begin Nov. 20, the eve of the 1,400th anniversary, with a gala celebration at the National Gallery of Art.
Then, on Nov. 4, the American Embassy was seized in Tehran. The gala was postponed, the new organization played down, and press kits announcing the multimillion-dollar venture were pulled back.
Organizers said they felt it was an inappropriate tie to put on anything that looked like a celebration.
"We didn't want to step off into a hostile environment," said director William R. Crawford, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and Cyprus and the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East, North Africa and South Asian Affairs until 1979.
"Ayatollah Khomeini said he acted in the name of Islam, which of course he wasn't," said Crawford. "But I think the average American believed him."
The recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has prompted the organizers to go ahead now, because Crawford said, the events there have muted Americans' hostility toward the Islamic world.
"In Afghanistan, you have Islamic tribes fighting for the freedom to practice their religion against the barbarian, militaristic, atheistic hordes des from the Soviet Union," Crawford said.
Although several art exhibits and lectures went on as scheduled across the country, Crawford and the 10-member board of directors have decided that now is the time to publicize their program.
The formal opening celebration of the "Islam Centennial Fourteen " program probably will be in April or May, according to Crawford. In addition, a traveling film festival of "representative contemporary" Islamic productions is scheduled to begin in June and a documentary called "Islam," costing over $1.6 million, will begin production in December.
The traveling exhibit of Islamic art, science and humanities will open in Houston a year from now.