Muslim Journeys: Breaking down Stereotypes through the Power of Story

By Ne’Shaun Borden

I am new to the interfaith movement and the University of North Florida Interfaith Center. I was introduced to interfaith work in March when I went on a life changing alternative spring break trip to Washington, DC to learn and advocate for people experiencing homelessness. While in DC, we met with different religious and non-religious leaders who are members of the Washington Interfaith Network. I was inspired by the way these groups were able to put their differences aside to form a partnership that could impact change in their community. Over the week we visited many different places and had tons of meaningful experiences but the most defining moment for me was a trip to Masjid Muhammad, a mosque in D.C., for Juma’h.

I am a Christian, and I have attended the same church for a majority of her life. Until this point, I never took the opportunity to venture outside of my comfort zone and learn about different worldviews (note: and no one ever asked me to). I knew that Muslims were different from me and that was about the extent of my knowledge. I entered the mosque, took off my shoes and covered my head. I was prepared to feel completely out of place, but when the music started something happened. The words were so familiar, the message so similar to the one that I had heard at my church so many times. My curiosity peaked. I wanted to know more about Muslim culture, beliefs, and experiences so when I was asked to pick a book to read and discuss from the Muslim Journey’s Bookshelf, The Children of Abraham by F.E. Peters seemed like the natural choice.

Muslim Journey’s is a project born out of the collaboration of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global and Islamic Studies, and the American Library Association. The goal of this project was to provide the public resources that represent diverse people, places, and practices of Muslims in the United States and abroad. As a result of these efforts, The Bridging Cultures Bookshelf: Muslim Journeys Collection is now housed at 953 libraries and 36 humanities councils.

On Thursday, September 18th, 2014, over 200 people filled the University of North Florida’s University Center with the desire to learn more about the experience of Muslims in America. This was the last installment of the Muslim Journeys series in Jacksonville and a wonderful opportunity to see the faces and hear the voices of some of the people who have been working on this project since its inception in 2013. The event was moderated by Dr. Parvez Ahmed, a professor in the college of business here at UNF. The keynote storyteller was Dr. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri from Reed College, two student storytellers Adah Shair and Omar Zein, and three conversationalists: Tyler Toomey, Dr. Lukens-Bull, and me. Beautiful music was provided by a local Turkish-American flautist and Dr. Tarah Trueblood closed the event with a thoughtful reflection.

Dr.GhaneaBassiri spoke about his experience being a Muslim in America. He also spoke about growing up in Iran and standing in front of tanks as he rallied with his mom during the Iranian Revolution. He spoke of his disappointment when that revolution did not turn out to be the movement of the people that he had expected. He told the story of how his experience led him to study religion. I found myself smiling as I listened to Dr. GhaneaBassiri speak. He was so warm and genuine. Omar Zein, a student storyteller, sung a beautiful poem about a young boy who lost his mother whom he met while interning in Turkey on the Syrian border. I cried thinking about the love that I have for my mother and how grief is universal.

The second student storyteller Adah brought me to tears as she shared her story. Adah came to America from Kashmir to attend college. For the first time in her life she had to defend her worldview, something that has been a part of her identity since her birth. She spoke about the way people associate Muslims with terrorism and how that cannot be further from the truth. The way Adah told her story made me question the stereotypes and presumptions that I have about Islam. I questioned why I had bought into these ideas about an entire people from a few images and ideas that I saw on the news and in that moment I changed.

This was indeed a transformational experience for me. I went in nervous, only thinking about what I would say when I spoke on stage. I realized during the event that this was not about me or what I would say – but the stories of all of these people.

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