Arif ChoudhuryPhoto courtesy of EPL

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Many Americans know little about the world’s second most popular religion or about what it means to be a Muslim in America today. Evanstonians who are interested will have a chance to learn from local raconteur and comedian Arif Choudhury. Having grown up as one of the only Bangladeshi Muslim Americans in his Northern Chicago suburb, he is on a mission to change some pre-conceptions. Mr. Choudhury shares the humor in human relations while exploring issues of ethnic and religious identity, assimilation and diversity.

“I share my stories to open people’s minds and hearts, to humanize what it means to be Muslim. Often I hear people say, ‘Where are the moderate Muslims? We never hear from them.’…Well, I’m a moderate Muslim. … Come hear me speak. I believe that when I share my stories of growing up as a Bangladeshi American Muslim that the audience – Muslim and non-Muslim – will find that we have more in common than they might think.”

Evanstonians can hear Mr. Choudhury speak at the Levy Center at 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 8, at the kick-off for “Muslim Journeys: Let’s Talk About It,” a year-long series of book discussions, films and theater hosted by the Evanston Public Library.

Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association, EPL is one of 125 libraries and state humanities councils nationwide selected to offer a five-part scholar-led reading and discussion series on the history, faith and cultures of Muslims in the U.S. and around the world.

Evanston Public Library director Karen Danczak Lyons is delighted to have EPL involved. “I am proud that we were chosen to offer Muslim Journeys. We actively look for new ways to engage people in community conversations about a wide variety of important topics,” she says.

A key element in “Muslim Journeys” is informed conversations facilitated by local scholars. The books to be discussed are part of the “Bridging Cultures Bookshelf,” 25 fiction and nonfiction titles selected by librarians, cultural programming experts and distinguished scholars.

Northwestern Assistant Professor in Islamic Studies Brannon Ingram will lead a discussion in March on “Art of the Hajj,” the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. “Muslim Journeys is a wonderful opportunity for community engagement on topics that could not be more timely,” Mr. Ingram says. “Particularly in light of current events in the Middle East, there is a greater need and desire among the public to learn about Islam and Muslims beyond what the news provides.”

Carole Schersten LaHurd, adjunct professor, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and an expert on Muslim Christian interfaith dialog, will lead a discussion in April on the poetry of Sufi mystic Rumi.

“I am very glad to see the Evanston Public Library involved in the Muslim Journeys project,” says Ms. LaHurd. “Although Muslims have lived in the United States since the arrival of slaves from West Africa, recent immigration waves have increased the Muslim
population to an estimated six million.

She says, “Many non-Muslim Americans have formed friendships with Muslims in their workplaces, schools and neighborhoods.

“But many more say they know little about Islam and know no Muslim Americans. The Library’s Muslim Journeys project will help reverse that reality, and will create opportunities both to erase stereotypes and to build mutual understanding among residents of diverse religious traditions.”

Future programming includes a performance from Silk Road Rising Theatre: Artistic director Jamil Khoury will present “Mosque Alert” at EPL, the story of two Naperville families – one Christian, the other Muslim – whose lives are torn apart by a proposal to build a new mosque in their community.

Mr. Khoury says, “America’s well-funded, highly orchestrated ‘Islamophobia industry’ continues to spin anti-Muslim bigotry at breakneck speed, causing injury and harm to untold millions, both Muslim and non-Muslim. We believe the antidote to hatred lies in hearing each other’s stories.

“Empathy eradicates fear. Knowledge inspires community. Muslim Americans are an essential part of the American story, and Muslim Journeys opens an exciting new chapter in that story. “

Joey Rodger, director of Peaceable Cities Evanston, agrees. “We are all enriched by cultivating deeper understandings of journeys different than our own. We become better neighbors, better citizens, better human beings … more able to live peaceably together. We are grateful to the Evanston Public Library for inviting us to learn together about our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

“Arif Choudhury, Muslim in the Midwest” will be presented on Sept. 8 at 2:30 p.m. at the Levy Center, 300 Dodge Ave. All are welcome. More information is available at 847-448-8600.

Discussions on “Muslim Journeys” begin Sept. 15. A list of books and information about registration are available at 847-448-8620, or at http://muslimjourneyseplmgplwpl.wordpress.com/