Islamic Heritage Museum News

From Food Pantry to Presidential Engagement

Exhibit about presidential engagement, on loan from US State Department, joins core exhibit at America's Islamic Heritage Museum.


“People don't know each other. That's why we have all this mess,” says Ahmad Ansari, participant in a recent event at America's Islamic Heritage Museum (AIHM). He gestures to encompass the range of discussion topics just raised: interfaith mistrust, economic development insensitive to community needs, people who hear without listening, politicians who speak without understanding. That's why it's essential, Ansari argues, “to get to know people better,” and that's one reason AIHM is so important.

On this pre-hurricane Sunday, AIHM is hosting film screenings, museum tours and conversation. The gathering concludes with special programming for Islamic Heritage Month. 

“I really didn't know much about Islam or Muslim culture,” says Katelyn Dehey, first-time museum visitor and Arlington resident. “Then I saw this event for Islamic Heritage Month.” Following the film and exhibit tour, Dehey chats with Ansari and several other participants. She describes her studies in multicultural counseling and her interest in exploring a culture unfamiliar to her. “I was so uneducated,” she remarks. “Now I'm more educated.” 

“Dialogue is so important,” Ansari says. “And this museum offers an opportunity to learn more about Islam, see documents and artifacts. This building itself is an artifact, actually.” 


“Artifact” in Operation


The “artifact” in question is the building at 2315 Martin Luther King, Jr., Ave SE. Outside, a sign still reads “Clara Muhammad School,” acknowledging the early leader in what is now the American Muslim Society. Inside, the building holds a few hints of its previous life as an elementary school. Restrooms are still labeled Boys and Girls, and old lockers are incorporated into an exhibit. But the space is now renovated for displays, events, offices and a small museum shop. 

AIHM opened to the public on April 30, 2011, and draws non-Muslim and Muslim visitors of all ages. At the core of the museum is “Collections & Stories of American Muslims,” an exhibit exploring the intersection of Islam, African American culture and US history. The exhibit, created by Amir Muhammad and his wife, Habeebah, traveled for 15 years. Displays extend from pre-Columbian Muslim explorers to contemporary American Muslims. With its new, more stationary home, the exhibit itself is growing, and AIHM offers a variety of programs for visitors of different ages. 

During Islamic Heritage Month, a special exhibit, on loan from the US State Department, was installed. Special programming for the month also included book signings, lectures, films, a tour of DC's Islamic sites and a special event co-hosted with Islamic Relief USA (IRUSA). 


Community Engagement

Islamic Relief is an international charity responding to disasters and “seeking to eradicate poverty, illiteracy and disease.” The US affiliate recently launched a national program, “Giving Grain,” aiming to address hunger and poverty across this country. Headquartered in northern Virginia, IRUSA established its first Giving Grain site at AIHM.

“We wanted to begin in the local area, especially in Southeast, where the need is high,” says Minkailu Jalloh, IRUSA's program director. “Brother Amir [Muhammad] was one of the first people we thought of ... because he is respected in the community, and because the museum is a focal point.” In cooperation with AIHM and Masjid Muhammad, IRUSA has been providing a bi-weekly food pantry in Anacostia since August. IRUSA raises the funds, while volunteers from the community, the masjid and IRUSA distribute nutritious food to anyone in need. “We didn't even advertise,” Jalloh explains. “But upwards of 60 or 70 families show up every time.”

Building on DC's example, Jalloh is helping launch similar operations in other cities. IRUSA also joined with AIHM to present a special Islamic Heritage Month event and to provide winter gear, school supplies and other items along with hot meals, health screenings and entertainment.


Presidential Engagement

United States presidents, beginning with George Washington, have engaged with Muslim communities around the world. Historian Precious Rasheeda Muhammad (no relation) compiled speeches, letters, photographs and news reports from various administrations to create “Presidential Engagement of Muslim Communities, 1787-2011.”

In 1864, for example, Lincoln's administration published a Tunisian perspective on slavery calling on the United States to “eradicate from your Constitution all that can give countenance to the principle of slavery. Pity the slave. God loves the merciful among his worshippers.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, while a candidate in 1953, supported Muslim servicemen seeking religious accommodation. Four years later, President Eisenhower spoke at the dedication of DC's Islamic Cultural Center, saying: “Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience.” 

AIHM is excited to offer the State Department’s exhibit to the public, says (Amir) Muhammad. While designed for all audiences, the exhibit “is perfect for students and school groups” and it promotes an understanding of diversity. He hopes schools will take advantage of access to this unusual view into US history. 

The exhibit illustrates “presidents affirming America’s respect for Muslims and Islam dating back to Washington, Adams, and Jefferson,” Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, when the work was initially unveiled. “We celebrate that history.”


To “Savage” Ads No Sanction

This fall public transit systems across the country received ads, from a recognized hate group, equating Muslims and savages. WMATA and other transit systems initially refused the ads but were forced by court order to display them. The “savage” ads, in DC's Metro throughout October, met with protest from many groups and individuals. 

Do the ads suggest widespread objection to “respect for Muslims and Islam”? The AIHM experience suggests otherwise. “The Museum shows that Muslims have been part of the fabric of U.S. society for a long time,” says Jalloh. “There are individuals who want to present Muslims and Islam as ‘foreign,’ somehow contrary to American values. But most people just aren't buying it.” 


America's Islamic Heritage Museum, 2315 Martin Luther King, Jr., Ave. SE, is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; Sunday noon-5:00 p.m. 202-678-6906. Giving Grain Food Pantries, first and third Saturdays, 9:00 a.m.-noon. Open to all in need. Volunteers encouraged. 703-370-7202.

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