Dialogue in Decorah: The Big Heart of a Small Town

Religion News Service, USA
March 17, 2004


(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at
American University in Washington, D.C., is author most recently of "Islam
Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World," published by Polity

To read the international critics of the United States, it is a society dominated by pedophiles, rapists, corrupt business executives and politicians, sadistic prison guards, and deceiving and lying leaders.

The actions of Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Martha Stewart, the Enron
bosses and Halliburton; the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and
Afghanistan; and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are
seen as symbolic of what is wrong in society.

So where is the decent, compassionate and pious society identified famously in the social sciences as based in the Protestant work ethic that laid the foundations in the 19th century for American society and assured the emergence of the United States in the 20th century as a global power?

Does it still exist? Or are the international critics right? As an anthropologist I could not resist an invitation from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, as I believed I could find the answers there if anywhere in the United States.

Decorah sits in the American heartland. It is so remote that the drive from the St. Paul-Minneapolis airport is three hours long. The names of the small towns along the way -- Harmony and Prosper -- reflect the ethos of the traditional society of white, Protestant, European immigrants.

Decorah, which has a population of about 8,000, was founded in 1849. The
original settlers were mainly Norwegians. Luther College was established in 1861. With its sprawling campus, evergreens, maples and oak trees, it became the pride and symbol of the small town. Today it has about 2,500 students and makes a vigorous attempt to reach out to international students.

The name of the college and the statue of Martin Luther on campus are reminders of the cultural context of this society. The buildings are functional and the furniture sparse. Agora, the college magazine, has articles that emphasize the environment, service, education and compassion. In keeping with the tradition of learning, the library is of particular pride. I went in for a random check of my books and was pleasantly surprised to see four of them in stock including my most recent, "Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World."

Since Sept. 11 both faculty and students have taken initiatives in interfaith dialogue to create an atmosphere of goodwill on campus. Saima Qasim, from Pakistan and one of the nine Muslim students on campus, had taken the initiative to invite me. When she became co-chair of the Muslim Students Association and Allies, she was determined to do something about the problem of the image of Islam.

Ambitiously she aimed to make my speech a major public event. She mobilized other departments and had a story printed in the Decorah newspaper to ensure public participation. No Muslim scholar had ever visited Luther College to give such a public lecture.

There was a sense of pride in the small Muslim student body. When I arrived at St. Paul, I was met by Saima and two of her colleagues. I was able not only to meet and interact with the faculty but to visit two classes and talk to students. The public lecture the next day drew almost 1,000 people, many from the town.

In my talk on Islam's relationship with the West, I described the present popular global theories, the situation in the Muslim world, the points of contact and the differences, and the way ahead if dialogue and harmony were to prevail. I found a positive and alert response in the question-and-answer session that followed.

At the end the audience gave me two standing ovations, which was extremely moving. I believe people in the audience were telling me that dialogue and understanding mattered; that while they were in a remote and isolated part of the world, they still cared for it; that they welcomed strangers in their midst. I was further moved when Larry Quanbeck, a pastor who had driven from the renowned Luther Seminary at St. Paul, presented me a term paper he had written: "Akbar S. Ahmed: Scholar and Diplomat." It was highly appreciative of my efforts at interfaith dialogue.

I was moved because Larry, whom I had never met before, must have spent
many months studying the work of a Muslim scholar. It illustrated the desire
of Americans to reach out in faith and understanding.

But in many ways, the good folk of Decorah are fighting a losing battle against the forces of the 21st century. A Super Wal-Mart has just opened after spirited resistance by the locals. It threatens to destroy the personal relationships that existed between shopkeeper and customer. Saima and her friends described how until now they left doors unlocked and keys in the car.

The little town with the big heart will need all its courage and compassion in the coming time. The battle for the soul of the Midwest is joined here in Decorah. Its outcome will affect the shape and form of society in the United States. That in turn will affect how the world sees the United States.

(Reprinted with permission)

Copyright 2004 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this
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