Durango comes to terms with Islam
Locals work to transcend culture, geography and fear
Ziarat Hossain Ph.D., a Durango resident and Fort Lewis College professor, relaxes outisde his office early this week. Hossain is one La Plata County’s few Muslims./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

By Dean Powers

After a prolonged passenger search conducted by police in the Denver International Airport, a local woman vented her frustration. "What, do I look Iraqi?" she asked.

Some empathize with this sentiment, while to others it reflects misunderstanding.

As terrorist groups with strong ties to the Middle East continue to capture headlines, the Arab community and Islam itself are under scrutiny and suspicion throughout the nation. And these effects extend to Durango, where there is no Mosque or even much direct exposure to the Islamic culture.

Tom Harman, a Durango resident, has deep concerns about Islam. "I feel that Islamic leaders are threatened and jealous because our system of freedom and human rights has been so rewarding to free societies," Harman said, "while their Islamic way of life has kept most of their residents in feudal ignorance and poverty."

Harman, who has more immersion in Arab culture than most, said he distrusts Islam from his experience living in Saudi Arabia where he worked for the Saudi Oil Company. Harman admitted that he has not read the Koran or directly engaged Islam's practitioners. However, he argued, "Stop looking at it as a religion, and start looking at it as a political system."

Not long ago, Harman wrote a public letter, entitled, "Islam is Evil and Sinister." While he adamantly condemns bigotry, he also said that he believes Durango is susceptible to an attack, a concern that heightens his suspicion of people dressed in Middle Eastern attire.

Arab sympathies

Professor Thomas Eckenrode began teaching Middle Eastern history in 1970 at Fort Lewis College. Over the course of the last three decades, several locals have challenged his curriculum, asking if he is an "Arab sympathizer."

"I heard it especially during the first Gulf War, and then I heard it again during the second Gulf War," he said.

Eckenrode said that these accusations are reactions to the Arab or "Palestinian point of view" his courses of study offer. This hostile affront, Harman's all-inclusive opinion of Muslims, and the reaction to the DIA passenger search are troublesome to some people in the community.

Ziarat Hossain, one of only a handful of Muslims in Durango, dismissed Harman's feelings as an inaccurate portrayal of Islam. "Saudis are not the only Muslims in the world, and I don't think people should judge Islam on the basis of the way some people [in Saudi Arabia] live," he said.

Hossain, a psychology professor at Fort Lewis College and a resident of Durango since 1994, practices Islam in his own home because there are no local worship centers. Born in Bangladesh, Hossain said that for the most part his experience in Durango has been decidedly positive and that he has encountered open-mindedness particularly among colleagues at the college.

Getting educated

Edward Angus, a retired political science professor and former colleague of Eckenrode's, has traveled throughout the Middle East since 1991. "The only way to understand the people, culture, climate and geography is by going," he argued.

Angus and Eckenrode have sponsored students for the college-level Model League of Arab States. The League, formed more than a decade ago, and modeled after the 22-member League of Arab States, is a tax-exempt 4 program based in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

"It's kind of like the U.N.," Angus said. "They each select a country and play that country for several days."

The students begin studying Arab states in the fall, and complete the program in the winter. Members in the League include countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Students study many of the 22 countries in order to become better delegates. Angus said that it would be "very unnatural not to have some sympathy" for Arab culture after the students finished the program.

A change of heart

Eckenrode, who designed a course of study that compares the origins of the Irish Republican Army and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, agreed that education changes viewpoints on terrorism. His course investigates whether the conditions that spawn two disparate militant organizations are similar. "I mean it's easy to say, well, they're jerks," he said. "And then once you look at the history you see students go, 'Oh darn, I didn't know that. I think I'm going to have to revisit my views on quote-unquote terrorism."

In a 30-minute digression that ranged from the "cosmopolitan" Abbasid Empire to the size and scope of the 'Middle East' - an area, he says, stretches a distance equivalent to that between San Francisco, and roughly 500 miles east of Boston - Eckenrode enumerated various similarities and differences between American and Arab culture.

Eckenrode also said he believes that if Durango held an exposition on Islamic culture, it might help to abate doubts and fears of Islam. "If you could do that for a week and then do it again in five months, I think you would begin to see a change of mind and heart."

But even that approach might fail to reach the unwilling. When Eckenrode cites the Abbasid Empire as an example of similar cultural and geographical success, "People ask, 'How come I haven't heard of it?'" he said. "Maybe they just didn't want to hear it."

Fear of the alien

Janine Fitzgerald, the chair of the Sociology Department at Fort Lewis College, argued that universally evident psychological symptoms could exist in Durango. She noted that fear creates tension in human relations, saying, "Xenophobia makes our world more violent."

Fitzgerald concluded that public discourse about cultural and ethnic differences is the remedy for xenophobia. "It is about communication which again can lead to trust, and I think trust is the only way to achieving security," she said.

Harman said that he remains dubious. He argued that when oppression and ignorance are enforced through Islam, 'Holy War' becomes possible for Muslims.

For this reason Harman said that he favors increased scrutiny of "people who look and act like they could be Islamic 'holy' warriors."

Hossain countered that suicide attacks have "never been permitted in Muslim, because committing suicide is a sin according to Islamic teachings." He contended they are the result of political or economic ambitions, sharing part of a theory Harman put forward.

Adding that he considers himself an "Arab sympathizer," Harman, too, faults political dictators for their enslavement of Arabs, saying he welcomes an ongoing discourse. It may be needed to reach an understanding, but although he is intolerant of Islam, he said, "When they are not talking religion, Arabs are some of the finest people in the world."





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