Faithful dialogue

Iroquois library offers series to increase understanding of Islam and the Middle East

Aluminum foil is peeled off of neatly stacked Bosnian pies, finger-length rolls of gummy dough stuffed with meat or cheese. A small crowd stands nearby, equal parts well-coiffed professionals, neighborly women in capri pants, and children maximizing Styrofoam cups with pink lemonade.

Conversation travels in small orbits as friends and friends-of-friends spot each other in the basement of the Iroquois branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, a room with white walls and blue foldout chairs that match a large United Nations flag draped over a shelf. A little after 6 p.m. on this Thursday evening, lights dim and the room grows quiet as a documentary, “Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” begins.

“Muslims come from every country in the world,” the narrator says. “Only 15 percent of Muslims are Arab and, of course, not all Arabs are Muslims.”

A montage of Muslim men and women in Asia, Europe and Africa fades in and out.

“Hey! That looks like me!” says a young girl sitting in the back of the room wearing a hijab, the traditional headscarf for Muslim women.

A few girls around her giggle. Sophie Maier takes it to heart. She’s worked as the immigrant-services librarian for nine years. She knows many of her friends who are Islamic refugees from wars in the Middle East and Africa usually see images of Muslims as terrorists or victims on American television, not the happy middle-class family who works, shuttles kids to school, and probably caps a night with an episode of “CSI.”

Maier sits in the back surveying the 20 or so people who’ve turned out for the film. It’s a decent number, though she’d love to see more. The hour-long documentary presents the results of the largest poll ever taken in the Muslim world. It explores perception, reality, history and hyperbole.

Throughout September, Iroquois library is hosting a film and lecture series, along with an art show, dubbed Islamic Civilizations and the Muslim American Experience. Maier, a sprightly woman with an eager smile, hopes the series fosters a greater understanding of Islam. After all, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, tens of thousands of Iraqis have resettled in the United States, many here in Louisville.

When she first started organizing the month-long series, Maier didn’t realize it was the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Once it dawned on her, the timing seemed right.

On a large television screen at the front of the room, images of Sept. 11, 2001, elicit a haunting dread. As the first tower crumbles, a few in the audience look down or shake their head.

“I can’t watch this,” whispers a teenage girl. “This makes me sad.” She bolts out, her long skirt gently whipping the door as she turns to close it behind her.

Shortly after 9/11, Gallup, a respected polling organization, embarked on a mission to interview tens of thousands of Muslims in 35 countries over six years. The goal was to gather data that would help construct a realistic sketch of the 1 billion Muslims who would likely be cast as villains by a hurt, angry world. Dalia Mogahed narrates most of the film. She’s the executive director and senior analyst of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.

The poll reveals that Muslims overwhelmingly believe women should be able to have a career of their choosing — 82 percent of women and 74 percent of men in Saudi Arabia. A majority of polled Muslims support freedom of speech and do not believe 9/11 was justified. Only a fraction of 1 percent of Muslims worldwide are active militants, most of whom do not cite their faith as a reason, but radical political beliefs. (According to Gallup, that fraction of 1 percent comprises 57 percent of Muslim representation in American media.)

Not surprisingly, the poll found America’s foreign policy isn’t popular. It’s considered hypocritical, supportive of democracy yet loyal to Middle Eastern autocrats who keep much-needed oil flowing. While 74 percent of Egyptians said they have an unfavorable view of the United States, when asked their view of Canada, only 3 percent reported a negative view, a statistic that inspired defeated chuckles among those watching the film.

When the documentary ended, there was no spirited debate or onslaught of questions. For many in the room, the film did not deconstruct preconceived notions. This was a rather worldly bunch.

Maier wants the audience for this kind of film to expand, to reach those individuals who may resist unwavering, worldwide tolerance.

In her nine years at the library, she’s seen how well disparate groups can communicate. Maier arranges a weekly English conversation club where anyone in the community can come chat with immigrants to help them learn the language. It’s an afternoon filled with slow, pronounced syllables and puzzling idiomatic expressions.

She’s watched unlikely friendships form.

In the days following the showing of “Inside Islam,” Maier stands at the library’s booth at the city’s three-day World Fest. On Sunday afternoon, the stage next to her bounces with lively Mariachi music. She enjoys the merriment of it all, the unique crafts and plethora of kabobs, spring rolls and other ethnic food.

Still, she thinks these cultural celebrations only go so far.

“I think too often, when we have ‘cultural’ showcases, it’s, ‘Look at our beautiful children dressed up,’ and that’s great,” Maier says. “But it has to be paired with dialogue or else you’re still just kind of presenting a surface thing that people can project on to.”

What’s happening in the basement of the Iroquois library makes for a perfect partner, she says. Marrying the two events is, perhaps, more of an ideological match than a realistic one. But Maier believes the only way a community can achieve religious and cultural acceptance is by engaging each other in conversation: “You’ve got to be talking.”

Visit or call 574-1720 for more on this month’s series.