‘I’m Muslim: Ask me a question’

Interfaith groups fight intolerance off the national political radar in “blue dot within the sea of red Kansas”.

KU pics
Muslim residents of Lawrence, Kansas, pray towards Mecca during communal evening ritual [Ben Piven/Al Jazeera]

Peppy college students clad in University of Kansas Jayhawks colours walk briskly past campus activity stalls on an unseasonably cold autumn afternoon.

Many of the blond sorority girls chat frantically about their weekend plans, as boys debate the spread for the next football game against a rival team.

Two tables stand out from the rest of the extracurricular clubs: a voter registration stand to sign up young Americans who just turned 18, and a Muslim Students’ Association booth where a red hijab-clad science major eagerly seeks to dispel rumours about Islam.

While the nation remains less captivated than during the 2008 presidential race, political groups clamour for attention, and religious organisations reinforce their messages after an anti-Islam video captured the headlines last month.

As the US election looms barely a month away, the national gaze is primarily focused on domestic issues in the ten- swing states where conventional wisdom holds the vote will be decided.

But many grassroots activist groups in heavily Republican states like Kansas – beyond the media-saturated campaign trail – remain more focused on key issues, rather than trying to influence a quadrennial poll that, statistically speaking, cannot be contested locally.

Ask a Muslim anything

On Thursday, the Kansas University chapter of the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) launched with renewed vigour a weekly outreach effort in the main student gathering area.

The MSA hung a flimsy sign reading “I’m Muslim: Ask me a question” to promote awareness about Islam, and also to motivate inactive members of their community.

The project was catalysed by a desire to “let people know we’re not raging hypocrites”, says Saima Azad, 22, a Bangladeshi-American microbiology student from Wichita.

“[The reaction to the video] fed misconceptions about us even more,” Azad told Al Jazeera. “We had been making progress but now we’re back to square one again.”

“Terrorism is not an ideal that we believe in. Polygamy, jihad – these are the topics that [people] want to know more about,” Azad says, adding that her role is to “clarify” false myths. “Some Muslims are going back to their corner and into their shells. But that’s not what we should be doing.”

‘On the radar screen’

Kansas lies at the geographical centre of the US, and is usually depicted as one of the most conservative states in the country – with the exception of small Douglas County around Lawrence, the state’s biggest college town, and Wyandotte County around Kansas City.

“I don’t know so much that there was a [local] response to the video itself,” says Professor Donald Haider-Markel, chair of the Political Science department at Kansas University. “It was more in terms of campus and community response to the aftermath of the video.”

Haider-Markel told Al Jazeera that a candlelight vigil held jointly by Muslims and others showed “universal rejection of the video and the thinking that it was ridiculous”.

“We haven’t heard much here about the national context of an administration defending free speech,” he told Al Jazeera. “But both nationally and to some extent locally it did re-focus people’s attention a little bit away from domestic issues, and the economy specifically. Up until that point, foreign policy had not really played any role in the campaign. In the last two-and-a-half weeks, at least it’s on the radar screen.”

The professor estimated that some 70 per cent of Lawrence area voters would choose the incumbent, even though about 102 of the 105 Kansas counties lean strongly towards Mitt Romney, the Republican contender.

But Kansas University is not a politically active campus when compared to other big Midwestern state schools, Haider-Markel said, adding that the 2008 Democratic caucus between Obama and Hillary Clinton had stimulated a rare burst of political participation. He also said students responded favourably early in the 2012 race to Ron Paul’s appearance.

State political profile

Presidential candidates could not be less bothered to spend campaign cash in Kansas, as Romney is virtually guaranteed to earn around 60 per cent of the ballots cast – and thus all six electoral votes in the winner-takes-all system.

Jayhawks’ football stadium at Kansas University [Al Jazeera]

Evangelical Christians make up at least one-third of the population in the state, which received visits only by Ron Paul and Rick Santorum during the Republican primaries.

Most of the state’s area is included in the sparsely populated first congressional district, where people in small western towns work mostly on farms and in slaughterhouses. Anti-evolution creationists there often clash with the pro-business types in the east of the state.

President Barack Obama’s mother grew up in Kansas, and in January 2008, he visited his grandfather’s hometown of El Dorado. Regardless, the only variable in November will be whether Romney’s margin of victory exceeds 20 points.

Riding a wave of Tea Party enthusiasm in the 2010 midterm elections, state Republicans rallied under Governor Sam Brownback and won all congressional and statewide offices for the first time since 1964.

And much of the local politics in 2012 have pit centrist Republicans against even more staunchly conservative and faith-based GOP rivals – enacting steep tax cuts early in the year.

But in the left-leaning home of Kansas University, which many locals describe as a “liberal oasis”, partisan politics have taken on a new tone as November 6 quickly approaches.

‘Close-mindedness of A-rabs’

Jason Hering, a 27-year-old Kansan, told Al Jazeera that reaction to the anti-Islam film trailer that rocked the Muslim world last month was a distraction from the real issues at hand.

“We [liberals] look at the video as an easy scapegoat for not talking about the important things,” the blond, goateed activist said after a vegetarian potluck-style meal.

“But that was a tipping point, the last straw. People around here understand the connection between the people rioting [in the Middle East] and increasing American militancy and drone attacks.”

An active member of an eco-justice organisation, Hering recounted statements made by a conservative farmer with whom he works, which are closer to the usual stereotypes about how middle Americans viewed protests of the YouTube clip.

“He reacted angrily about ‘the close-mindedness of A-rabs’, upset that people could react so violently to free speech,” says Hering. “So I wanted to give him a book called The Essential Koran, which shows the similarities to the Christian Bible. He had the tendency to grab small phrases from the book to excuse violence on both sides.”

‘Form of religious idolatry’

Reverend Thad Holcombe is the campus pastor for Ecumenical Campus Ministries, a group promoting interfaith pluralism. His organisation, based in a hilltop building near the centre of Kansas University, reportedly provided refuge for the first local feminists, Black Panthers and Native American radicals.

Holcombe refers to Lawrence as a “bubble” not only in Kansas but also nationally, as “20 per cent of [Americans] still think Obama’s religion is Islam”.

“There is also strong nationalistic identification with the [US] flag as a form of religious idolatry, as people define themselves [against] the ‘other’,” he told Al Jazeera.

Campus group that promotes progressive spirituality [Al Jazeera]

“Some churches perpetuate that ignorance, but you’d also be surprised in rural Kansas by more openness and tolerance than one would imagine. Unfortunately there are so many churches that have the American flag inside the sanctuary. It should be outside,” Holcombe said. “I’m speaking as a patriot, not a nationalist.”

Though he resisted being labeled as “religious left”, Holcombe said he “tries to be faithful, and if it lands that way, then it lands left”.

While he said he had not viewed the anti-Islam video, he condemned it as “abhorrent and narcissistic” and said the fractured liberal condemnation of the film shows that “interfaith dialogue in the country is still at an adolescent stage”.

“Jesus would call out the video,” Holcombe exclaims. “He would say ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Violated it. And no compassion was shown. Violated that too.”

“Islam, like Christianity, has all kinds of issues and is trying to figure out what it is. ‘Who I am’ in Libya is different from ‘who I am’ in India or Congo.

“The protesters were unemployed folks without meaning in their lives. The issue came up, so they started to burn and invade embassies … Historically, Christianity did the same kinds of things, like burning heretics.

“Islam is right here, struggling to define what it means in the 21st century.”

Holcombe said he is motivated to show “radical hospitality”, as his coalition hosted the first public Ramadan iftar break-fast on campus six years ago – which eventually outgrew the building and is now held at the fairgrounds.

‘Safe haven in Kansas’

At Thursday evening’s meeting of the MSA, members recalled two angry sermons delivered after the video release, at the Lawrence Islamic Centre – the main mosque in the area which serves a mix of visiting Saudi and other international students, as well as native-born American Muslims.

The main area mosque is in a former church building [Al Jazeera]

“For me, it was more frustration, disappointment towards the person who made the video,” said Azmi, a Malaysian student at KU. “But at least we didn’t kill anybody or even take it to the streets.”

“Freedom of speech is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. We can express ourselves too, and limiting that would hurt other people.”

“We were inspired by a Catholic group that also does [public question-answering] and wanted to represent ourselves in flesh and blood – to clear up our name,” Azmi told Al Jazeera. “We are not like the people who killed the ambassador in Libya, or who ransacked the embassy in Cairo.”

“A lot of people want to believe Islam is bad,” said Azmi. “We just want peace on this earth.”

After a series of informal icebreakers, Iesha Kincaid, president of the MSA, discussed the activities for the upcoming Islam Awareness Week with about a dozen other group members hailing from diverse backgrounds.

The planned agenda included public readings from the script of “Hijabi Monologues”, a lecture on the Prophet and creation of an Islamic art gallery.

License plate at KU Chabad reads ‘JEWHAWK’ [Al Jazeera]

Kincaid, also a native Kansan, said, “The video curiosity and controversy increase the chances of people listening … they wouldn’t have been interested in learning about [Prophet Muhammad] before”.

The tall, headscarf-wearing college senior then explained her goals for an interfaith banquet and a charitable peace walk from a church to a synagogue and then to the mosque, on whose leadership board Kincaid also sits.

“Lawrence is a safe haven in Kansas – nice, liberal and tolerant,” said Kincaid, originally from Wichita, the biggest city in a state where more than 85 per cent of the people self-identify as Christian.

In an election year when both major party candidates nervously address their faith backgrounds, many Americans remain loathe to mix religion with politics.

“Romney comes out of a [Mormon] tradition that faced severe oppression, and Obama comes from a progressive [United Church of Christ] community with real oppression,” says Reverend Holcombe.

“Yet the two guys distance themselves from their religious backgrounds, while still invoking the name of God. That’s nauseating. Who is the real Romney, and who is the real Obama?”

Follow @BenPiven on the #RedStateRoadTrip through Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas & Tennessee

Source: Al Jazeera