At the beginning of the latest Iraq crisis they were called ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Then the group too extreme even for Al-Qaida was called ISIL — the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Now, having captured their “caliphate,” ISIL is known as “the Islamic State.”
Its threat to multiple Mideast nations, and even the West, makes the Islamic State a big story. But despite the warranted news media ubiquity, context is important: The Islamic State is not the state of Islam.
That’s true globally, nationally and especially in Minnesota. Indeed, the mosaic of Muslims in Minnesota — this month’s Minnesota International Center Great Decisions dialogue — can be seen in everyday life in all parts of the state, as well as in an exhibit called “Tracks in the Snow: The Minnesota Muslim Experience since 1880” that can be seen starting Thursday at the Walker Art Center.
The traveling exhibit, created by the Islamic Resource Group (whose co-founder, Zafar Siddiqui, wrote today’s accompanying commentary), features portraits and brief biographies of 25 Minnesota Muslims. People like Arshia Sandozi, a Carleton College student of Indian descent who’s interested in neuroscience. And Ziad Amra, a U.S. Bank vice president of Palestinian descent who was born in Shakopee and raised in Chaska. Or Nora Sadek, a Duluth medical student of Egyptian and Native American heritage who is pictured in front of a frozen lake, literally making tracks in the snow.
The exhibit is a testament to the tapestry of Minnesota Muslims. But it’s not necessarily all about religion.
“This is not an exhibition so much about what people believe, but about who they are,” said Sarah Schultz, director of education and curator of public practice at the Walker.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., puts it this way: “There are as many ways to be a Muslim as there are ways to be human.”
Ellison exemplifies that fact. The Fifth District Democrat from Minneapolis is Muslim, which seems to matter more nationally than it does in Minnesota.
“When I served in the Minnesota Legislature for four years, everybody knew I was a Muslim but nobody really cared,” Ellison said in an interview. “In Minnesota, people saw me as Keith, and when I ran for Congress, they saw me as ‘the Muslim running for Congress.’ ”
Ellison added that his identification was never as a “one-dimensional religious caricature.” Yet often that’s how Americans perceive believers of Islam, and often that perception is negative, according to a Pew Research Center study that was released this month.
When asked to rate religious groups on a “feeling thermometer” scale of 0 to 100, Jews (63), Catholics (62) and evangelical Christians (61) were all viewed “warmly” by the American public, Pew reported. Conversely, Muslims (40) were ranked last, even behind atheists (41).
Age, race and party affiliation exacerbated some of these divides. But familiarity played a part, too. Only 38 percent personally know a Muslim. Among those who do, Muslims as a group get a neutral rating of 49. But among those who don’t, the group gets a much lower 35 rating.
In some small way, Schultz hopes that the exhibit at the Walker — which she calls a “convener of communities” — can change that. “It puts forward other media images and it’s a real good example of reminding us all of the importance of the opportunity and the forum to have our own narrative, and not allow other people to tell our story,” she said.
Yet Schultz readily acknowledges that “Tracks in the Snow” competes against a blizzard of images of Mideast strife. So does Ellison: “You look on the news and you have Iraq, Syria, Palestine-Israel, Egypt — even Ukraine has a Muslim angle, because there are large numbers of people who are Muslim who live in Crimea. It’s in the news. There is no sense of trying to deny it or duck it. You take it head on. So I think [the exhibit] is the right way to approach it.”
“Tracks in the Snow” doesn’t deny or duck. But it confronts the image issue in a subtle way by focusing on relations, not religion.
“We all have assumptions about who we mostly are, and I think that an exhibition like this reminds us that as Minnesotans, we are many different kinds of people — we are mostly a plural,” said Schultz. “It really reinforces the openness of Minnesota to really embracing people and allowing them to make a home somewhere.”
And having a home here can break down barriers created elsewhere.
“It just goes to show when people get used to something, it gets a little less scary, which is sort of a lesson,” Ellison said. “At the end of the day, folks are folks no matter where you go.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. on Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.