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The Nation

Muslim History Takes Root in South

The small museum in Jackson, Miss., has attracted a stream of visitors since 9/11. Now, organizers hope to expand the facility.

January 06, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JACKSON, Miss. — The timing, it seemed, couldn't have been worse.

It was the summer of 2001, and the organizers of an exhibit about Islam were weighing whether to turn it into a permanent museum. The temporary display had drawn well enough to encourage museum boosters to think bigger.

Then came Sept. 11 -- and eruptions of bias against Muslims nationwide. On the downtown Jackson street where the Islamic exhibit was housed in a converted warehouse, the immediate response was just as ugly: Days after the terrorist attacks, a brick smashed into the plate-glass window. Then a crucial project fund-raiser looked doomed when two top political figures suddenly got cold feet.

"We just thought we were in trouble -- that everybody's going to stop coming," recalled Okolo Rashid, who was in charge of the museum planning effort. It was "so bad for us, so negative."

But a surprising thing happened. The little storefront museum, with its Moorish-style arches and colorfully tiled entrance, didn't wither. The fund-raiser was a hit (the headliners showed up, after all). And the museum drew a stream of visitors -- school and university groups, tourists and residents -- who suddenly had a thousand questions about Islam, and about the possible motivations of the Sept. 11 terrorists.

Now, more than a year later, the International Museum of Muslim Cultures is believed to be the nation's only museum devoted to Islam. The museum remains modest -- at 1,500 square feet, it's not much bigger than a clothing boutique -- and boasts few historical artifacts, save for a prayer platform and an oversize wooden door, both from 19th century Moroccan mosques.

But the warm reception has inspired organizers to plan an expansion of the museum, which sits next to a closed tire store down the street from the Mississippi Museum of Art. The Muslim museum has won praise and financial help from city and tourism officials, who say it reflects a cultural diversity in Mississippi that is often not recognized by outsiders.

Rashid, now the museum's director, said underscoring the historical contributions by Muslims in areas ranging from medicine to commerce may help explain why, with the exception of the brick, harmony generally prevailed in this city of 200,000 after the terrorist attacks inflamed passions elsewhere.

"People are quite surprised. Mississippi? The South? People thought we would have had what was going on elsewhere in the country. We've had nothing like that here," said Rashid, a former consultant who grew up in Jackson. "We think we've played a part in that."

The museum got its start in early 2001 as a display, hastily assembled by members of Jackson's small Muslim community, to complement an exhibit of Spanish treasures being shown at the nearby Mississippi Arts Pavilion. Members of Rashid's mosque asked whether the exhibit would reflect the nearly 800 years during which Spain was under Muslim rule and witnessed remarkable advances in science and culture.

"The answer was no," said Emad Al-Turk, a transplanted Palestinian who runs a Jackson engineering firm and is chairman of the Muslim museum. "We felt obliged to try to have a companion exhibit."

The result was an exhibit highlighting Islamic Spain, from the 8th century to the 15th. It also provided a broader introduction to Muslim religious beliefs, music and cultural innovations. Today, one corner of the museum resembles a miniature mosque; nearby is a mock souk, or marketplace, complete with baskets of colorful cloth and carpets and sacks of spices. Another section is done up as a Moroccan family room, with low sofas embracing an ornate wooden table topped with a tea service.

The museum depicts a Muslim reign of striking progress in Spain: paved streets and sophisticated irrigation systems, schools and libraries, bustling commerce, medical advances and learning that predated the Renaissance.

Presented too is a spirit of general tolerance toward Christians and Jews living in Muslim Spain -- a vision of multicultural coexistence that museum organizers offer for contemporary America. A video features brief appearances by members of Jackson's Muslim community, which numbers fewer than 1,000 but includes professors, computer scientists, doctors and others from all over the globe.

"We as Muslim Americans listen to the news and hear the stereotypes. We don't have the vehicle to portray the true image of Muslims, the positive contributions of Muslims," said Al-Turk, who moved to Mississippi 20 years ago. "We feel this is a positive way to do it."

Museum officials say 11,000 visitors have strolled past the tile fountain inside the front door, although on a recent weekday morning there were none in sight. Rashid said visitors often ask her to reconcile the tolerant image of Islam presented in the museum with that of terrorists. Her answer: "These are people that are extremists. We don't call them Muslim extremists. They're extremists."

The museum effort has won support across religious lines.

"It's a great thing that that little museum is here. It's an educational moment and it provides understanding," said Macy B. Hart, president of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, also in Jackson.

The Roman Catholic bishop of Jackson, William Houck, calls the museum a "contribution to the community."

That the museum has survived so far gives admirers hope that it will last. Museum officials next plan an exhibit tracking the spread of Islam through Africa to the Americas. Under discussion too is a traveling exhibit that can be taken around the country.

Amid tense times, the museum's boosters are counting on curiosity to win out over animosity. "It's the spirit of the American people to want to know more -- to learn," Rashid said. "There's this spirit in America to rise up to find more information. It's not the ignorant population that wants to bury its head."

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