Understanding the Other

Librarians who fought ignorance with information

September 1, 2021

Silhouette of mosque on gold background (Illustration: green2/AdobeStock)
Illustration: green2/AdobeStock

Islamophobia in the US existed long before the September 11 attacks. But as a traumatized country mourned and searched for someone to blame, fear and suspicion of those perceived to be Muslims or Arab Americans intensified. The FBI reported a 17-fold increase in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim crimes in 2001 over the previous year, according to a 2002 report from Human Rights Watch. Some librarians experienced discrimination or witnessed bigotry in their communities—and many worked to fight ignorance with information.

Ghada Kanafini Elturk, a Lebanese American who was then working as community and cultural outreach librarian at Boulder (Colo.) Public Library, described the hostility against Muslims and Arab Americans in the months after the attacks. “Those Americans who are not familiar with my culture do not show respect,” she told American Libraries reporter Ron Chepesiuk in January 2002. “Some people say, ‘Oh, you don’t look like an Arab.’ They think it’s a compliment, but my answer is: ‘That’s because I left my horns at home.’”

Elturk also told Chepesiuk that she organized a program called “Afghanistan in My Heart: Local Afghan Americans Talk about Their Native Land” in November 2001, with the goal of building awareness around a country that was suddenly always in the news. And she continued doing outreach work with Boulder’s immigrant communities until her retirement in 2015. One program, “Setting Roots,” involved participants sharing what they do to make Boulder feel like home.

Jordan-born Majed Khader, director of Morrow Library at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia—a longtime naturalized citizen by 2001—says in the 20 years since September 11, he’s encountered more curiosity around Islam and the Middle East than hostility, though he notes that he’s still careful to avoid standing out when traveling or handling government documents, which his work has involved. “Sometimes [library] users ask sensitive questions that have to do with national security, and it requires visiting a national security website,” he says. “Personally, I would try to avoid using these websites and assign [the task] to one of my staff because I don’t want to connect my email to such a question.” He adds: “As Muslims, we have to defend ourselves even though we are innocent.”

Majed Khader

Khader has taught a class on Islam at Marshall University since 1991 and for many years—before and after the attacks—regularly contributed op-eds to local newspapers about Islam and Muslims in the US. “Education is part of the solution to the stereotyping problem,” he wrote in his hometown paper The Herald-Dispatch in 1995.

“I never decline an invitation—from local community organizations, clubs, classes, whatever—when they’re covering subjects that have to do with Islam and the Middle East,” says Khader, who still lectures to these groups regularly. “They might not know Islam is a religion of peace.”

After the attacks, Rosalie Amer, who in 2001 was a systems librarian at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento as well as a professor teaching courses on Islam, found her expertise in high demand.

“9/11 had outreach impact in a way, because those of us who were teaching about Islam or teaching Middle Eastern history, we were a rarity,” Amer says, noting that she worked with local churches and mosques to promote dialogue and understanding. As terrible as the attacks were, she says, September 11 was a catalyst for building improved interfaith relations in this country.

“Interfaith activities between mosques and other faith congregations accelerated after 9/11,” Amer says. “These efforts contributed to a diverse generation of youth that is familiar with other faiths and communities and coming from a place of tolerance, understanding, and, hopefully, acceptance. Communities of faith in the Sacramento region have become more open to learning about the other.”


Attendees are seated at the Perspectives on Islam event on March 9 at Darby (Mont.) Community Public Library.

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