Dina Abkairova is a Muslim whose high heels and long flowing hair reveal her secular preference. Islam is an important part of the Lesley grad student's identity, but she sometimes "avoids religious people" because they might take issue with her Western appearance.
Abkairova did show up at Boston University this past Monday to hear a lecture on Muslim cultures, part of a series of talks sponsored by the American Islamic Congress (AIC). Drawn by AIC's approach (their slogan is "Passionate About Moderation"), Abkairova recently joined the organization and is scheduled to speak at one of the upcoming lectures. She is exactly the type of Muslim the AIC wants to attract — people who want to understand Islamic identity but dislike the overtly political and religious associations that often haunt such discussions.
The AIC aims to foster a friendlier atmosphere by focusing less on controversial issues and more on lighter cultural questions, such as what color hijab (head scarf) goes best with blue jeans. Speakers at the lecture series include Muslims from all walks of life — from an Afghani economics undergraduate at Simmons to a former Iraqi interpreter for the US Army. Not a single one is a religious figure.
The absence of clerics at these events is "no accident," says AIC organizer Nasser Weddady: "We want people to think of Muslim cultural identities, not about their theologies."
During Monday's "Islam in Africa" event, BU professor Fallou Ngom told the audience about an order of black Senegalese Muslims, called Murids, who grow dreadlocks to show their respect for Islam. "You can be a good Murid and like Madonna," says Ngom. "They are not mutually exclusive." Boston College art professor Khalid Kodi recalled how in his native Sudan "local beer is a food," not an alcohol. It is precisely such stories that Weddady wants non-Muslims to hear. "People are used to the concept of cafeteria Catholics and secular Jews," he says, "but they are largely resistant to the notion of cultural Muslims."
Surrounded by about 70 people, including many Muslims (none of whom wore a hijab or a long beard), Abkairova said she felt comfortable, free from fear of "being judged by others for being secular." Kristin Wagner, a BU junior, says that while politics and culture were equally important in her life, she feels "more free to speak and participate" in a cultural discussion. These cross-cultural events, says Wagner, are important because "it is hard for Americans to identify with a culture that has been consistently painted in an aggressive, anti-American light."
Wagner plans to participate in the final event of the AIC spring program, a Muslim Multicultural Fair on March 29, which will feature musical performances, henna painting, an Islam-themed fashion show, and the auctioning of a baseball signed by J.D. Drew. The activities are designed to challenge people's "basic notions" about Islam, says Weddady, and if people have a good time along the way, all the better.
The AIC lecture series "Diversity in the Muslim World" continues through March 25 at various locations. All events are free. Visit aicongress.org/prog/diversity.html for details. The program concludes March 29 with the Muslim Multicultural Fair, from 1 to 5 pm at the Cambridge Community Center, 5 Callendar Street, in Cambridge. To register, call 617.266.0080, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit aicongress.org/prog/bazaar.html. Proceeds will benefit Barakat, a Cambridge nonprofit fostering women's education in Afghanistan and elsewhere.