January 21, 2013
Predictable old crank is against NEH Muslim Journeys program
by Sal Robinson
Last year, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association initiated a program, Muslim Journeys, intended to provide libraries across the country with a collection of books that might help patrons get a more nuanced sense of the Muslim world: libraries who applied could receive 25 books (some novels, some nonfiction, some poetry), a number of movies, and a yearlong subscription to Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Earlier this month, the NEH and the ALA announced that 843 libraries and state humanities councils had been selected to receive the grant.
But Walter B. Jones, Congressman for the 3rd district of North Carolina, isn’t going to stand for this kind of noxious infiltration of our nation via copies of Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction and Persepolis. Craven Community College in New Bern, North Carolina, has received one of the Muslim Journeys “bookshelves” and Jones is demanding, in a letter posted on his website, that if the college accepts the grant, they should also provide “equal exposure to books about Christianity and America’s rich Judeo-Christian heritage,” in the form of 25 books on Christian topics donated by the local Craven-Pamlico Christian Coalition.
Let me make a wild leap, and venture that the Christian Coalition is not talking about “Howl,” or even, say, The Seven Storey Mountain, or any other intelligent, important, groundbreaking work reflective of the American Judeo-Christian tradition. Furthermore, that the Craven Community College is very likely to already have books about Christianity, and not need 25 more of them, whereas it’s quite possible that they haven’t got some or many of these resources in their library (an annual individual subscription to Oxford Islamic Studies Online is, for instance, around $200, and an institutional subscription could well be higher, or bundled with other databases the library doesn’t need).
What’s particularly irritating about this affair — above and beyond the insularity Jones seems to pride himself on and wants to impose on his constituents in the very place where diversity and breadth of information is rightfully expected—is the pettiness of it. The matching number of books, the insistence that if the library holds an event announcing the Muslim Journeys acquisitions, then they should also hold an event about the tiresome 25 Christian Coalition books … this is not about beliefs, it’s about numbers. It’s tit-for-tat bigotry, supported by sarcastic quotation marks (“the rich heritage of Islamic civilizations”), and I hope it’s nipped in the bud by the Craven Community College library, who, after all, didn’t ask for Jones’s opinion when they applied for the grant, and all other defenders of freedom of speech, thought, and reading all the Rumi poems you goddamn want to.
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.