April 2021 was declared as a month for Arabic and Muslim Cultures in the US. Therefore, the leading International Museum of Muslim Cultures was the central venue for the occasion. SEE News talked to the Deputy Executive Director of the museums MRs. Lina Ali.
RA: Thank you for giving us this chance and let’s start with the most recent occasion. The International Museum of Muslim Cultures hosted an Islamic Heritage Month celebration that brought together artists and thought leaders, can you tell us more about this project?
LA: In 2016, as our museum celebrated its 15th anniversary, the city of Jackson, Mississippi formally declared the month of April as Islamic Heritage Month with the International Museum of Muslim Cultures presiding over cultural and educational programming and activities.
Prior to the pandemic, our annual efforts brought together our local community, which represents Muslims from over a dozen different countries, as well as our non-Muslim neighbors and audience members who also enjoy and benefit from our programming.
Activities included educational talks on topics such as Islam and social justice; a broad range of music and dance performances including jazz, dabka, and Indonesian Tari Persembahan; art demonstrations such as henna, ebru, and calligraphy; multi-cultural food tastings; fashion shows, poetry readings, and more. Last year due to COVID-19 restrictions IHM was canceled, however, this year we opted for a virtual program in order to share Islamic Heritage Month with everyone across the United States and beyond.
Our program included a virtual music festival featuring the award-winning global artist group Surabhi Ensemble who performed classical, folk, and spiritual music and storytelling traditions from Africa, India, the Middle East, Spain, and the United States.
We also had a virtual film screening; food demonstrations in time for Ramadan; artist features; and an Earth Day talk with a local environmentalist and urban homesteader.
RA: How did the museum receive the news of dedicating a month for Arabic and Muslim cultures?
LA: Mayor Tony Yarber's decision to name April as Islamic Heritage Month was received with much appreciation and respect.
It was nice to reap the fruit of our fifteen years (at the time) of dedication to serving and educating our community by becoming the lead organization to run the Islamic Heritage Month celebrations every year for the city of Jackson which has now become a national and even global event with our use of technology and social media.
RA: “Unity in Diversity” is not an easy theme to handle, how did the idea of this event come to your mind?
LA: “Unity in Diversity” is a creative program that demonstrates the connections among cultures and teaches a positive message of togetherness through music.
The performers that participated in the program represented a variety of Muslims and non-Muslims that have come together as artists to share the beauty and richness of their particular cultures.
The idea of "unity in persity" is indeed a challenging concept and definitely one with noble outcomes once people realize the strength and success that come with the unity of all kinds of people and the regard for differences.
We strongly believe that as Muslims our cultural persity amongst ourselves is great and oftentimes non-Muslims are not aware of this persity and generalize Muslims into a monolith.
Our museum programs are designed to dismantle these stereotypes and to offer a new perspective that we are not often privy to in the mainstream.
RA: What is the museum's position on the recent waves of hatred and rejection against Asians during the COVID-19 crisis?
LA: We are very proud to be a place where people come together for the enjoyment of cultural programs regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.
It saddens us to see the mistreatment of Asians in the wake of the pandemic which is a stark reminder of the mistreatment of Muslims that we are unfortunately so familiar with.
The issue of fear and the lack of education plays a role in the current wave of hate towards the Asian community and it will take time and effort to overcome this difficulty. As a museum, we stand in solidarity with our Asian and Pacific Islander communities and we will always support those that are oppressed or mistreated.
RA: Are the Arab and Muslim cultures in the United States considered minorities?
LA: Yes, Arabs and Muslims are minority groups in the United States. Research indicates that the first Muslim seafarers may have settled on Native American land as early as the 12th century, well before Christopher Columbus, who is believed to have had several Muslim expeditionists and mapmakers on board his ship to the Americas.
It is believed that a majority of the African slaves brought to America in the early founding years were Muslim. African-Americans make up 25% of the Muslim population in the United States with the rest being Arab, Indian, Pakistani, Latino and mixed-race. There are about 4 million Muslims in the United States today which is about 1-2% of the overall population and Islam is considered the third largest religious group after Christianity and Judaism.
RA: How does the museum participate in shedding the light on the glory of Islamic cultures in the US?
LA: Our first exhibition was on the "Majesty of Spain" which highlighted all of the wonderful scientific, mathematical, medicinal, and artistic advancements that came from Andalucia during the Golden Age of Muslim rule in Spain.
Our flagship exhibit, the Legacy of Timbuktu, highlights the extraordinary richness of historical manuscripts dating back to the 13th century which reveals a sophisticated literate culture that flourished for over 700 years in Mali. Most recently, our Covenants & Coexistence exhibit showcased a number of treaties made by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, which highlight his leadership as a statesman who offered rights and privileges to minorities living in Medina.
One of these documents is the Constitution of Medina which is believed to have influenced our very own US Constitution.
RA: Muslims are constantly accused of terrorism and violence, how do you refute such a myth?
LA: As a museum, our job is to share knowledge, history, culture, and art for people to discover the essence and truth about Islam and its followers.
We strongly believe that Islamophobia can be tackled with education and our programs and exhibitions serve the purpose of teaching with the universal language of art and culture.
By having our doors open to everyone and participating in cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue and cooperative projects we are able to play a small role in chipping away at stereotypes and false accusations.
RA: What major challenge has the museum faced during the pandemic?
LA: We have been very fortunate to be able to keep our staff and to continue to provide programming during these trying times amidst the loss of income from ticket sales and governmental grant assistance.
The main challenge has been reaching our audiences since they cannot visit us physically and we have tackled this challenge by transitioning to online programming and creating virtual tours of our exhibitions.
RA: Finally, in your point of view, what are the steps for bridging the gaps between cultures and normalizing the concept of accepting others?
LA: First and foremost is education; by educating people about the truth about Islam, we are able to battle fear, particularly fear of the unknown, and thereby breaking down barriers for acceptance and understanding.
As mentioned above, welcoming people into our space and participating in conversation and dialogue is paramount for us. We also take pride in utilizing our platform to support social and societal change in our immediate community.
From fundraisers for humanitarian causes to organizing and participating in protests and civic actions.