NPR commentator and occasional CNN guest Omar Ali will be at the North Regional Library this Tuesday to discuss the realities of Islam behind the headlines.
After the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden last week, the UNC-Greensboro associate professor of African American and Diaspora Studies believes that discussion just got even more timely.
"What's important is to not make a distinction between Americans over here and Muslims over there," Ali said. "I think that Muslim Americans have the same response as other Americans, which is a sense of relief."
Omar Ali, UNC-Greensboro associate professor of African-American and Diaspora Studies, will speak on "The Many Faces of Islam: Behind the Headlines" at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at North Regional Library, located at 7009 Harps Mill Road. For more information, contact the library at 919-870-4000.
Of Peruvian and East Indian descent, Ali grew up with a Christian mother and a father who was raised Muslim. With the insight provided by his diverse background and lifetime of study, Ali hopes to help attendees to a deeper understanding of Islam and its diversity.
He spoke recently with staff writer Chelsea Kellner about the issue.
Q: Why is this important to talk about now?
A: Islam is in the news every single day. I think the depictions of Islam have been largely negative and largely simplified, and I think that there is a need for people who aren't of Muslim background to learn more about the history of Islam. ... Muslim communities are an important part of the U.S. - there are 7 million Muslims who live here. ... Islam is not just something over there in some strange part of the world, it is part of American culture.
Q: Do you think people are still curious, or are perspectives on Islam pretty entrenched by now? Do you think there is anything you can teach that will change people's minds?
A: I don't know if I can change people's minds. I think all I can do is try to initiate conversations that bring people into learning environments where they could possibly grow. I don't know if I will change their minds about Islam, but it may impact how they respond to things.
These negative depictions of Muslims are not something new, post 9/11 - it's part of American culture to look down on and look negatively at Islam. People don't know much about it. ... I think as much as we can create conversations, that's good. I hope their activity is transformed from that, how they respond to things.
Q: What reaction have you seen in the Muslim community from the news of Osama bin Laden's death? What impact do you think that will have on non-Muslim Americans' relationship to Islam?
A: Among the (Muslims) I have spoken to, I think there is a feeling of guardedness, because al Qaeda is still out there - it didn't rely solely on him.
We need to take a deep breath and be careful ... but there's a general relief that the man is gone, because he caused so much harm and continues to be in the leadership position of an organization that causes harm to people.
I don't speak on behalf of anybody in terms of Muslims. I'm independent in my orientation. ... I think there are other Americans who will never in some ways want to have anything to do with Islam except look down on it and think about it in negative terms. That to me ... is a relatively small grouping of Americans. I think there's an openness in America. I am optimistic in this respect.
Q: What do you want people to come away with?
A: I'm very interested in people, and I think that helps me to be tolerant. If I can help to generate interest in other peoples and other cultures, then that's wonderful. ... I think you can still have a negative view of something and be tolerant of it. You can hold onto your views and still be able to have a conversation with people. I think that's really important.