The National Endowment for the Humanities has joined with two private foundations, Carnegie and Duke, to fund “Muslim Journeys,” a project that aims to present “new and diverse perspectives on the people, places, histories, beliefs, practices, and cultures of Muslims in the United States and around the world.” Its main component is the “Muslim Journeys Bookshelf,” a selection of 25 books and three films on Islam sent to nearly 1,000 libraries; the project has a website and also conducts some other activities. Marvin Olasky, who brought this project to public attention, estimates the whole project cost about $1 million.
As one of the taxpayers who unwittingly contributed to this project, as well as the compiler of my own bibliography on Islam and the Middle East, I take interest in the 25 books NEH selected for glory and has spread around the country.
Softness characterizes its list: The 25 books quietly ignore current headlines so as to accentuate the attractive side of Islamic civilization, especially its medieval expression, and gently promote the Muslim religion. It’s not so exuberant an exercise as the 1976 British World of Islam Festival, described at the time as “a unique cultural event that . . . was no less than an attempt to present one civilization — in all its depth and variety — to another.” But then, how can one aspire to such grandeur with all that’s happened in the intervening years?
NEH’s list and mine do share minor commonalities: for example, one author (the Moroccan writer Fatima Mernissi) and one series (the Very Short Introductions series issued by Oxford University Press).
But our purposes could not be more different: whereas I help readers understand why Muslims fill 30 out of the 32 slots on the most-wanted-terrorists list and how Islamism came to be the main vehicle of barbarism in the world today, the endowment’s list shields the reader’s eyes from all this unpleasantness. Where I provide background to the headlines, NEH ignores them and pretends all is well with Islam, as is the federal government’s wont.
My list seeks to answer burning questions: Who was Muhammad? What is the historical impact of Islam? When is warfare jihad? Why did Islamism arise? How does tribal culture influence political life? Where can one locate signs of hope for Islam to moderate? In contrast, the NEH list offers a smattering of this and that — poetry, personal accounts, antiquities, architecture, religion and history, original texts, and a smidgeon of current events, preferably presented fictionally. (For example, In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar, tells the story of a boy growing up in Qaddafi’s Libya.)