I may be Buddhist, but I’ve spent a good portion of my years building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims. As I was preparing for a reading recently of my second multigenerational book on Islam, Muhammad: the Story of a Prophet and Reformer, I pondered this rather unexpected vein in my life’s work.
Long ago as an undergrad in religious studies at the University of Colorado, long before the words Islam and terrorist were coupled together in our media, I sensed the profound Otherness of Islamic cultures for Americans. I remember seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 and leaving the theater before the movie finished, fuming at the stereotyping of volatile, threatening Arabs. In that moment I recognized that Hollywood had used this shoddy currency throughout its history, lodging harmful images deeply in our cultural unconscious as what Sam Keen called the Faces of the Enemy.
A few decades and careers later, one of the first things I wanted to teach in public school was media literacy, most of all to help students identify The Other embedded in our everyday news—especially visual news. As U.S. involvement ramped up in the Middle East, it was almost too easy for my students to find images in newspapers, magazines, and TV of an angry, violent Arab mob. During these years in education, I was fortunate to receive several grants from the State Department to travel to the Middle East twice and collaborate with Muslim teachers and their classes. All of my U.S. students had email-pals in Egypt during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and we studied both countries’ unfolding media narratives. Believe me: They were two very different stories.
The stereotyping continues unabated. Most recently, I was deeply disappointed that the film Argo received such accolades. If you time the angry mob scenes, which front the film, as well as the turbaned gun-toting men running amok in the city, they take up about 50 times more of the narrative than the single, rather touching scene in which an Iranian actually voices her feelings about the U.S. role in aiding the Shah’s brutal regime.
I had my first book on Islam, Ayat Jamilah, Beautiful Signs: a Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents, with me when I visited teachers in Jordan. Some people actually wept at a book reading held in Amman—amazed that an American made the effort to present a respectful collection of the Islamic stories they’d grown up with.
So why did this Buddhist write the first multigenerational narrative about the life of Muhammad for non-Muslims and Muslims? Why didSkinner House Books, an imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association, publish it? Because no one else had. Because our collective ignorance about Islam fuels our willingness to let our government wage wars again and again. Because Americans need to know why the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is so beloved by millions around the globe. Because, whether one is a Believer or not, Muhammad’s story is one of the most remarkable and influential hero’s journeys in history. Because one man risked everything to follow a spiritual calling and guide others on a path of virtue. Because such a rare and courageous life is always worth our time and understanding.
This post was written by Sarah Conover. Although many of Sarah’s books target a multigenerational audience, she insists on accurate scholarship and a sensitivity to the complex, culturally embedded perspectives of religious faiths. She facilitates religious literacy through her writings, writing workshops, books on world wisdom traditions, interfaith dialogue, and media literacy training. Her web site is http://www.sarahconover.com/