Only Museum of Muslim Culture in US

Maha Akeel, Arab News Staff
Publication Date: 
Sun, 2003-05-11 03:00

JEDDAH, 11 May 2003 — Jackson, Mississippi, is probably one of the last places in the US you would expect to find the International Museum of Muslim Cultures (IMMC). Whatever you would expect, the only museum of Muslim culture in the US is located there. There are fewer than 1,000 Muslims in the city of 200,000 in the southern state of Mississippi, which has a long history of racial problems and tensions. The Muslims in Jackson, however, hastily assembled the museum in early 2001 to compliment an exhibition of Spanish treasures at the nearby Mississippi Arts Pavilion. They felt that the exhibition failed to reflect the nearly 800 years during which large parts of Spain were under Muslim rule. During those years, remarkable progress was made in science and culture and scholars from all over Europe came to Spain to increase their knowledge and take the learning back home with them.

The efforts of Jackson’s Muslims efforts resulted in an exhibition “Islamic Moorish Spain: Its Legacy to Europe and the West” which emphasized the achievements of Islamic Spain and also included an introduction to Muslim religious beliefs, music and cultural innovations. The tolerance that Muslim rulers exercised toward both their Christian and Jewish subjects was also highlighted in the exhibition. The temporary display in a small 1,500 square-foot location was a success and encouraged the organizers to make it permanent. Then 9/11 happened and anti-Muslim feelings became common. Although a few days after Sept. 11, there was an ugly incident at the museum when a brick was thrown through a window, to everyone’s surprise, the museum continued to attract a steady stream of visitors who were curious about Islam and the possible motivations behind the Sept. 11 attack.

Since early 2002, the number of visitors to the museum has returned to pre- Sept. 11 levels. Attendance has not been affected by the war in Iraq, according to Emad Al-Turk, IMMC founder and chairman of the board. The Muslim museum has won praise and financial help from the city and tourism officials. “Our first exhibition is now part of the museum’s permanent collection and will remain open to the public. So far we have had over 20,000 visitors representing 30 states and 10 countries, “Al-Turk told Arab News.

A second exhibition entitled “The Golden Age of Africa and Its Legacy to Islamic Influences in America” is scheduled to open in early 2004. “We expect visitors to the exhibition and to the museum to reach 50,000 annually because of increased awareness and the planned marketing campaign,” he explained. In addition, IMMC plans to reach a national audience by organizing a traveling exhibition program in 2005 starting in Chicago. “The museum has reached a tentative agreement with the DuSable Museum in Chicago, the largest African-American museum in the country, to host our Golden Age of Africa exhibition in 2005. We are also discussing this concept with other major metropolitan areas including Washington, DC, Tampa, and Dallas,” Al-Turk stated. He feels that such participation will hundreds of thousands of people to gain accurate information about Islam and Islamic history.

The response within the community to the war in Iraq and to Islam has been mixed, said Al-Turk. “The majority of Americans support the war because they do not have a balanced and objective view of the history of the Middle East nor about the root causes of what they see as terrorist attacks by Muslims against civilians,” he said. A large group of American, however, who understand the issues opposed the war and showed their displeasure through anti-war demonstrations all over the country, he pointed out. As for Islam, he thinks the majority of Americans are ignorant about Islam and Islamic history. “The perception of the majority of Americans is that Islam is a violent religion that sponsors and supports terrorism, supports the oppression of women and minority groups and does not allow people of other religions to practice their faiths freely,” he said. In his view, these beliefs are due partially to unbalanced reporting in the American media but more importantly, by the lack of community involvement on the part of American Muslims. There is also a lack of structured and properly balanced educational programs pertaining to Islam and Islamic history “which is why we strongly believe in the mission of the museum as a tool for educating the American public about Islam, Islamic history and the contributions that Muslims have made to the world. The museum is the only Islamic history educational and research institution in the USA with a primary mission to educate the American public about Islamic history throughout the US,” said Al-Turk. The museum held more than ten educational workshops in universities to educate teachers about Islam and Islamic history and it provided curriculum to the teachers to augment their existing materials. “We have collaborated with over a dozen scholars throughout the US who helped us in researching the exhibition, developing educational resource material and speaking at public forums.”

The museum visited a number of churches and businesses and it had many students visit the museum as part of school field trips. Regarding the objects n the museum, “We have collaborated with a number of institutions in the US and I’m planning a trip to Egypt to visit the Islamic Museum in Cairo, but we need further assistance in this area. We are also interested in Islamic history books, manuscripts” he said.

For funding, the museum was not affected by the war in Iraq but it did lose financial support after 9/11. “The majority of our funding was from Muslim organizations and individuals, but after Sept. 11 with the crackdown on Islamic organizations, our funding from American Muslims has been cut in half,” explained Al-Turk.

The museum has been able to remain open with support from the local, state and federal government in addition to financial support from non-profit foundations and cooperate sponsors. More than half their funds today come from non-Muslim sources. “Although we are able to maintain the museum’s daily operations, without serious financial support we will not be able to grow and have a national impact on educating Americans about Islam and Islamic history and presenting the true picture of Islam to them,” Al-Turk explained.

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