Promoting religious tolerance in the US via an exquisitely rendered Quran

by adam rasmi

Surah 49, Al-Hujurat or The Chambers. (Courtesy Everitte Barbee)

Surah 49, Al-Hujurat or The Chambers. (Courtesy Everitte Barbee)

Read the original at the National

Plans to build or expand Islamic community centres in the United States have come under intense public scrutiny in recent years. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for example, a 2010 proposal to expand the city's only Islamic centre caused a national uproar, raising larger questions about America's acceptance of its Muslim community.

Many of Murfreesboro's 111,000 people "thought we were invading their country to take away their life", said Saleh Sbenaty, a board member at the Islamic Community Centre of Murfreesboro (ICM) and a professor at Middle Tennessee State University. Some residents, Mr Sbenaty notes, were unaware that an Islamic centre had existed in Murfreesboro for more than 30 years already.

The city's previous Islamic centre had become too small and cramped to meet the Muslim community's growing needs. In response, two hectares of land were bought in 2009 to be the site for a 1,115-square-metre facility equipped with picnic pavilions, walking trails, a football field, and basketball and tennis courts.

However, rising anti-Muslim sentiment quickly raised the question of whether a new facility would be tolerated in the city. As the public debate and legal battle unfolded over a tense two years, the ICM was protested against, vandalised, and subjected to arson attempts and one bomb threat. The words "Not Welcome" were spray-painted on to the sign at the centre's entrance.

Beyond the city, prominent anti-Muslim organisations across the US were also quick to call for a halt to construction on the project. A group called Stop the Islamisation of America (SIOA), for instance, proved instrumental in ensuring that the Murfreesboro situation "became one of the worst examples of anti-Muslim bigotry in recent years", as a spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations described it. Both the Southern Poverty Law Centre and the Anti-Defamation League classify the SIOA as a hate group.

A New York blogger and activist, Pamela Geller, the co-founder of SIOA, said her group's opposition to the ICM was a result of the centre's alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Ms Geller told The National that according to a captured internal document, the Brotherhood was dedicated to "eliminating and destroying western civilisation from within".

Even as anti-Muslim sentiment permeated the views of many ICM opponents, however, many artists and activists were working tirelessly, and continue to do so today, to combat religious and ethnic discrimination in Tennessee and across the US.

One good example is Everitte Barbee, a calligrapher from Nashville, the state capital, who is penning a Quran for Solidarity, reproducing the entire holy book through stylised non-linear Arabic text.

Verse-by-verse, he is writing all of the book's 114 surahs and, to the best of his knowledge, it will be the first Quran to be entirely handwritten by a non-Muslim.

The project entails transforming the Quran's Arabic text into abstract images and figurative shapes. Take, for instance, surah 105 (Al-Fil), which Mr Barbee has used to weave together a colourful representation of an elephant, the chapter's subject matter.

To make the project feasible, Mr Barbee uses Diwani - a calligraphic variety of Arabic script - because it lends itself more easily to figurative art. "What makes it beautiful is how the curves interact, it can be stretched without losing its essence," he says.

Aesthetics aside, Mr Barbee reiterates that one of the goals of the Quran for Solidarity is to "just encourage people to read the Quran" and to "produce a cultural exchange". He said the protests, vandalism, and arson against the ICM in his home state of Tennessee had made the project's importance resonate with him.

Once the Quran for Solidarity is completed - the enterprise will take at least another five years - Mr Barbee plans to send copies to the ICM and to Park 51, the Islamic centre in Lower Manhattan that the SIOA calls "the ground zero mosque". Like the ICM, Park 51 experienced intense public and official opposition even though it is not located at the site of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and other mosques are already closer to the World Trade Centre.

Activists say that discrimination against Muslims still permeates many local and state-level institutions across the US. For this reason, they say, initiatives such as Mr Barbee's are especially important in tackling the negative attitudes about Islam that were instrumental to garnering public opposition and delaying the ICM's construction for almost two years between 2010 and last year.

A federal court in Nashville eventually stepped in, in July last year, at the request of the US department of justice, striking down several lawsuits against the Murfreesboro Islamic Centre and determining that the ICM's constitutional right to religious freedom and land use were being breached. The ICM's mosque opened in time for Ramadan last year.

While the rights of the ICM's sponsors were in the end upheld by the federal government, the process involved an arduous court battle that took years. On a practical level, the result is that the area's Muslims had to live for years subject to local and state-level measures that were unconstitutional to begin with.

Now despite the federal government's decision last July, the ICM is again being challenged in the courts. "The lead Plaintiff was a gold-star dad [an American term for the father of a soldier who died on active service] who learnt that an Islamic centre was not like most rural churches, when he lost his son to a bullet fired from a mosque while serving as a US marine in Iraq," reads a recent appeal from the law office of Joe M Brandon Jr, the lead attorney behind the latest legal challenge.

While this new appeal will most likely be struck down, the ICM's continuing legal battles are a symptom of a larger problem - intolerance of Muslims in the US. A 2010 report by the liberal Centre for American Progress, for instance, argued that only 37 per cent of Americans have a positive view of Islam.

Mr Barbee, the calligrapher, agrees that anti-Muslim discrimination is common enough to warrant more concern. Opposition to the ICM, he notes, "was not just a couple of people - I mean it was the whole town".

On a political level, some candidates and officials have encouraged or capitalised on anti-Muslim sentiment in Tennessee. "You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, a cult, whatever you want to call it," one failed candidate for governor of Tennessee said at the peak of the ICM controversy.

At the same time, however, large support groups of non-Muslims have been key to pushing through the ICM's construction, which itself is testament to the many Americans who demand greater religious and ethnic tolerance.

Still, initiatives such as Mr Barbee's will continue to be important in tackling negative attitudes towards Muslims. Such efforts may also serve to discourage local and state-level legislation or court rulings that infringe on the first amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion.

Already people from various religious communities, nationalities and ethnic backgrounds have sponsored surahs (chapters) of Mr Barbee's Quran for Solidarity, demonstrating that projects such as this one are mustering support for greater social justice.

As to exactly how effective the work of activists is in addressing anti-Muslim discrimination, Mr Barbee acknowledges that bigotry "isn't done out of any real logic". But many hope that his project, and like-minded ones, will encourage some people to reconsider their views.

"Maybe if they see this white kid from Tennessee that's taken the time to write the entire Quran, maybe it will make people want to take a second look at it," he says.