Rocky relationship rides 9/11 tide

Sep 07, 2011, 08:35 IST | Hemal Ashar

A first ever exhibit called Islam in America being held at the Haji Ali Dargah in the city, is a pictorial portrait of Muslims in the US in public and ordinary life

A first ever exhibit called Islam in America being held at the Haji Ali Dargah in the city, is a pictorial portrait of Muslims in the US in public and ordinary life

It was a wind-swept Tuesday morning, a day when the sky threatened rain but fortunately for numerous visitors walking towards the Haji Ali Dargah, the great blue yonder did not make good its threat.
Amongst those visitors on the road cutting into the sea was a posse of policemen and security detail that evoked great curiousity.

Consul General of the US in Mumbai, Peter Haas at the Haji Ali site yesterday

They were there, courtesy The Consul General (CG) of the US in Mumbai, Peter Haas, accompanied by personnel from the American center in Mumbai and Haji Ali Dargah trustee, U S Vanjara, camera crew and television and print journalists who walked in to inaugurate an exhibit called, Islam in America being held at the Dargah.

The American Center Mumbai, in collaboration with the Sayed Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhair Dargah Trust have hosted a poster and video exhibit, which they say, 'showcases the various aspects of Islam and Muslims in America and celebrates cultural diversity in America'.

The exhibition, a first ever for the Haji Ali Dargah comprises a posters and a video film, which shows Muslims in America, with thumbnail sketches about their background and how they have integrated into society. The exhibition is open to the public and will be on till September 18.
Famous Muslim Americans like Muhammad Ali, former heavyweight world champion boxer (Ali was formerly Cassius Clay who converted to Islam and became Muhammad Ali. Reports state that in 1964 he embraced the Nation of Islam) and basketball superstar Kareem Abdul Jabbar are featured on posters. There is also a picture of Keith Ellison. Ellison is the first Muslim to be elected to the United States Congress. 

Poster boys
Besides famous personalities, the exhibit has posters of ordinary Americans in different facets of life with several of Muslim women shown wearing the hijab (headscarf). Incidentally, the Islamic head covering (hijab) and face covering (niqab) have become a lightning rod for controversy off late, especially in Europe.

A poster of one of the world's most famous boxers, Muhammad Ali at the exhibit

As Mumbai's Muslims and visitors of other faiths looked on, Haas cut the ribbon of the exhibition hall to a flurry of flashbulbs and then took time to scrutinise and comment on certain posters.

Haas who has just taken over as CG of the US in Mumbai on August 1, said, "I was drawn to this place on my very first visit to Mumbai which was in March this year. At that time, I had come to the Dargah as a visitor and I was mesmerised by its beauty. What also struck me was that it is not just Muslims but people of all faiths who come here."

What struck this reporter though was that the timing of this exhibition, Islam in America, is telling. This Sunday on September 11, the US marks 10 years of the 9/11 terror attacks. The media and American networks in particular, have been marking the run-up to the day with reporting on all aspects of 9/11, survivor stories, heroic accounts and conflicts within the US-Muslim community.

Haas though denied any link between the timing of this exhibition and the tenth anniversary of the attacks that changed USA, the world and how we live in so many tangible and intangible ways. "There is absolutely no connection," he said, in response to a journalist's query about the timing of the exhibition.
The same line was taken by U S Vanjara, who also said, "the exhibition has nothing to do with the 10 years to 9/11" when asked by this reporter. Anne Grimes, Public Relations Officer of the American Center was even more circumspect when asked what was the current climate in the USA, "I have not been to the US for nearly a year," she said, brushing off the question.

Anne Grimes, Public Relations Officer of the American Center at the Dargah

What Haas repeatedly stressed was that this was an effort to, "celebrate diversity in the US and in India too, both countries which offer parallels in the different ways in which people worship. It also shows how well integrated Muslims are in America, they are members of Congress, athletes and Nobel Laureates."

Haas also added that he looks at this diversity and integration as a kind of weaving into society, 'the warp and weft, with the warp (up and down) weaving symbolic of the integration of governments while the weft (with its sideways left to right) weaving symbolic of the colour, texture and strength of the ties of diverse people."

Unanswered questions
While Haas made his point about integration, tougher questions were not answered in a shroud of diplomacy. The still very mixed feelings of Muslims towards the US, and the US towards Islam, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and its relationship with Pakistan of so much interest to India, there were no answers about that.
There was a feeling was given that this was not really the time or place to ask uncomfortable questions. After Haas left, it was the Haji Ali dargah trustees who had to answer queries. Vanjara too trod with caution when asked questions about the broader US-Islam relationship. He refused to answer a question on the drone attacks terming it as, "too sensitive."
He did say though, "The exhibition would, we hope, shatter stereotypes and show that Muslims are not badly treated in the US. My family lives in the US and I travel there very often so I can say that with certainty. Of course, there has been some inquiry post 9/11 but that has to be done in the light of security reasons."

Pictures speak louder than words at this exhibit

When asked about why, if Muslims do not like the West, they continue to immigrate and live there, Vanjara said, "Who said they do not like the West?" Vanjara also pointed out that, "In the photos at the exhibition you saw women wearing the hijab, (headscarf) while in certain countries it is banned."

The burqa and especially the full-face covering is banned in public places in France and in certain parts of Belgium and some other European countries because of security reasons.  France had even said that forcing a woman to wear a burqa goes against he country's culture of freedom and equality.

While the CG and his entourage seemed understandably wary to dive into stormy waters, the rumbling waves that crashed into the walls of the Dargah and the road leading to it, mirrored some of the tumult in the US-Islamic world.

Exhibition: Islam in America, exhibit at the Haji Ali Dargah hall is open to the public from 10 am to 7 pm every day till September 18.

Discrimination or Tradition?
Efforts to prove that women are equal to men in Islam and there is no discrimination, suffered a backseat when a woman photographer was denied permission to enter a minaret and take pictures of Peter Haas at the event. Photographer U Kadam of the Times of India (TOI) was not allowed to enter a minaret, which was within the masjid's premises to take pictures of Haas at the minaret.
The Times of India's correspondent, M Wajihuddin also argued vociferously with the Dargah's personnel who stood steadfast in their denial to allow Kadam to enter the minaret.

Wajihuddin argued with Vanjara who said that, "we do not allow women inside the premises simply because we do not know which woman is clean or unclean." He also denied that this was discrimination.

"It is not discrimination, it is tradition."  Another man supporting Vanjara said, "This is Sharia law." An angry Wajihuddin though remained unconvinced.

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