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US Library Project Aims to Counter Misperceptions About Muslims - 2002-12-22

American Muslims are trying to combat what they see as a wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric and misunderstandings. One library project could bridge the gap of ignorance about Islam.

A recent report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation says the number of so-called hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs was on the rise last year in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Recent anti-Islamic statements by Christian evangelical leaders also have upset American Muslims.

Ibrahim Hooper of the Council for American-Islamic Relations say the Muslim community has launched some grassroots actions to counter ignorance and misperceptions about Islam.

"I think one major factor in discrimination and bias and stereotyping of Islam is ignorance," he said. "And this is one way to counter that ignorance, by providing readers in libraries across America with accurate and objective information."

To do that, the Council is asking for donations of $150 to sponsor packages of information about Islam that are being distributed to libraries in cities and towns across the country.

"Our library project goal is to put 18-item packages of books, tapes, and audiocassettes, continuing accurate and objective materials on Islam in all 16,000 public libraries in the United States," Mr. Hooper said.

The Council is mailing thousands of letters to libraries in towns and cities, big and small, asking if they would like to receive the donations. More than 4,000 libraries already have said, "yes".

The donations include English translations of the Holy Koran, videos on Islamic culture and civilization, children's books on Ramadan and scholarly works on Islam's relationship with Western religions.

The Council tested the idea in a pilot project last year with the Public Library system of Los Angeles, California. Information Director Peter Persic says the library received some 740 books and materials.

"These included a wide range of materials of general interest on the Middle East and Islam, including a PBS video series, entitled Islam, Empire of Faith, copies of the Koran in both English and Spanish, books like Islam in Focus," he said.

Mr. Persic says the main library already had many of the books but not the 67 branches located around the city.

"So this material would help us increase the number of materials and provide more information people on a subject that has always been very popular," he said.

Interest in the Middle East and Islam has increased in the wake of last year's terror attacks and the start of the U.S. war on terrorism.

"Interest in issues on the Middle East and the Islamic world definitely increased after 9/11," mr. Persic said. "Although there has always been a very strong and steady interest in Islam it has always been hard for us to keep stocked. As soon as they arrive they fly off the shelf.

In the Midwest city of Dayton, Ohio, librarians find the selection of materials appeal to young and old alike.

Community Relations Manager Mark Willis says it makes their work a lot easier.

"One of the things that's nice about this is it's hard to tell what's good and what represents the Islamic community fairly," he said. "So, when we get the community themselves to recommend these, it helps make the choices."

Mr. Willis says the donations come at a time when budget cuts make it harder for libraries to expand their collections.

"So it's good, especially on topics where there's a demand," he said. "Sometimes you get books donated but if they're not where there's any interest, it doesn't really help your budget shortfall much. But where there is interest and people are willing to give things free, then that's especially good."

And, says Peter Persic in Los Angeles, the donations help the library meet the public's insatiable demand for information.

"The library is the first stop in people's quest for information about cultures, places, beliefs, and views beyond those that are prevalent in this country," he said. "So the library has a reputation of being a place where you can learn just about anything and we value that reputation and do everything we can to maintain that reputation."

For American Muslims like Ibrahim Hooper the library project also gets Muslim communities more directly involved in outreach programs to other faiths.

"In large part, it's our responsibility to bridge the gap of understanding with people of other faiths," he said. "And that's what we're trying to do, to do our part."

But, Mr. Hooper adds, it also depends on the willingness of other communities to partner with them to dispel the misunderstandings.