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Iranian crisis awakens US interest in Islamic culture

It was one of those wry twists of historical irony. Last November, just as a US national committee was optimistically launching its drive to help Americans understand more about the Muslim world, the 63 Americans in Iran were taken hostage by militant Muslim students.

In one fell swoop, the Islam-based revolution would eclipse the American drive for understanding Islamic culture, a drive strongly backed by President Carter himself.

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But now all that is changed. In fact, the hostage crisis may have done more to spark American interest in Islamic culture than anything else could.

The Washington-based "National Committee to Honor the Fourteenth Centennial of Islam" now is moving ahead with educational conferences on Islamic culture, art exhibits, and TV programs to sweep the nation over the next three years.

Indeed, there is a virtual boom of Islam- related educational ventures in the United States.

Staffers of the task force on Christian-Muslim relations of the National Council of Churches (NCC) have given more than 250 talks to local church and civic groups over the last four months alone.

The Hartford Seminary Foundation, whose staff has considerable expertise on Islam, plans a major conference in October on Muslim and Christian perspectives on faith in the modern world.

Numerous meetings are planned for the coming months across the country, including meetings planned by the interfaith "Thanksgiving Square Foundation" in Dallas; by the Church of the Brethren in New Windsor, Md.; by the Indiana Council of Churches in Indianapolis; and others.

These efforts reflect more than curiosity about the immediate US-Iran deadlock or price decisions of Islamic members of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

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American religious, educational, and business leaders are worried about the ability of Americans to get along with 800 million Muslims -- nearly one-fifth of the world's people.

"We must broaden our view of Islam-related world problems that impinge more and more on our lives, thus to participate constructively in solutions," argues the Rev. Byron Haines of the NCC.

Concern also mounts among corporation leaders, no doubt for a variety of reasons. A partial list of corporations represented on the Islam Centennial Committee: Coca Cola, Exxon, Ford Motor, General Electric, Standard Oil of California, and General Motors.

The full-time staff of the centennial committee will be working to sort out some of the widespread misconceptions, confusion, mystery, and fear about Islam among Americans, says a staffer, Dr. Naomi Collins.

Particularly prevalent, she says, are assumptions that Muslims are a homogeneous religious and cultural group; that most of them are Arabs living in the Middle East; and that most are militants.

"In fact," she says, "many Americans are amazed to learn that the world's 800 million Muslims live in 60 countries from Morocco to Indonesia, from Turkey to Tanzania; that only a minority are Arab (about 20 percent), though most Arabs are Muslims; that more Muslims live in China (an estimated 20 million to 30 million) than in most Middle East Arab countries; and that Islam, like Christianity, is not homogeneous but has a wide range of sects within it."

The desire of most American Muslims to participate more actively and responsibly in community affairs may make them more visible, says Imam Khalil Abdel Alim, a leader in the American Muslim Mission.

In May, for example, Imam Alim's Muslim community in Washington joined Christian and Jewish leaders to defeat proposed legislation to legalize gambling there.

Such cooperation is a model that planners of Islamic cultural education hope can be the rule in future American-Muslim relations.

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