In the tumultuous months after September 11, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations received a consistent message.
Islam, it seemed, was not getting a fair representation in the country. The solution: promote a kinder and gentler Islam in the nation’s 16,298 public libraries.
The effort, called the Library Project, was announced at a press conference in September last year. A year later, CAIR has succeeded in ordering about 6,900 sets of 18 Islamic books, tapes, DVDs and videos for libraries nationwide.
The effort coincided with librarians’ frantic efforts to stock collections on anything to do with Islam, biological warfare, terrorism or Osama bin Laden — the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.
By the time the CAIR project ends, almost $2.5 million will have been spent. It’s a public relations bonanza for the lobbying group, which has been criticized for not adequately condemning Muslim extremism before and after September 11. In response, CAIR began issuing an even lengthier daily compendium of favorable media reports on Islamic issues, launched a year-long “Islam in America” ad campaign and kicked off the Library Project.
CAIR’s books exist in pockets around Washington-area libraries, according to a survey of Web sites for libraries in the District, as well as Montgomery, Prince George’s, Arlington and Fairfax counties.
Even though CAIR is based in the District, the city has received only one of the group’s packets even though the Web site says 37 have been sent.
Nevertheless, “With things going on in the Middle East and the library being charged with presenting a balanced view, there are [other] Islamic materials in our collection,” said Dorsey Jones, adult collections manager for D.C. libraries.
CAIR said it was investigating the matter.
Many libraries, which have endured deep budget cuts this year because of shrinking state and federal revenues, have welcomed the project. Susan Woodcock, one of the book collectors for the Fairfax County Public Library, said all its 21 branches have a set of CAIR’s books.
“These books were useful and the staff was happy to have them,” she said.
“We’ve had a very high interest here on Islamic religion and life,” said Elissa Miller, collection manager for Arlington County’s library system, “so we have an extensive collection of materials on this matter.”
“I wouldn’t have taken such a large donation had I not felt this was an area that needed additional materials,” said Kay Ecelbarger, chief of collections and materials management for the Montgomery County library system. “A lot of things on that list were from mainstream sources, so they fit pretty well with the needs of librarians.”
But some detractors say the books — which come with a set of Islamic posters — aren’t presenting a balanced view on Islam. Some even call them a “Trojan horse” in the country’s literary stacks.
Robert Spencer, an adjunct fellow at the Free Congress Foundation, takes exception to a book by Paul Findley, “Silent No More: Confronting America’s False Images of Islam,” which he says calls American Muslim Council founder Abdurahman Alamoudi an “early pioneer in Muslim political activism” but quotes none of his statements supporting terrorist groups.
“In October 2000, Mr. Alamoudi told 3,000 Muslim supporters in Washington’s Lafayette Park, ‘We are all supporters of Hamas [and] I am also a supporter of Hezbollah,’” Mr. Spencer said. “Alamoudi’s inclusion in this book as a normal guy and a good American is a sign of the blinders people have on.”
Ibn Warraq, a former Muslim who has written several books critical of the religion, said the collection gives too rosy a view of Islam.
“In a democracy, you cannot stop groups like CAIR from sending their propaganda,” Mr. Warraq said. “Hopefully, the libraries will be more critical in what they accept. I hope they are careful these books [from CAIR] are not full of anti-Semitism, hatred against the West and non-Muslims.”
Mr. Warraq criticized Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Koran, the best-known English version of the religious book, which is part of the package. He said it glosses over passages, such as Sura (chapter) IV. 34, speaking of women: “As for those whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. …”
“Yusuf Ali,” Mr. Warraq said, “clearly disturbed by this verse, adds the word ‘lightly’ in brackets after ‘beat,’ even though there is no ‘lightly’ in the original Arabic. An objective reading of the entire Koran — that is, the total context — makes grim reading as far as the position of women is concerned.”
CAIR’s www.libraryproject.org site is not shy about its goals.
“BRING ISLAM TO YOUR LIBRARY,” it reads.
“Now more than ever before, your local public library is interested in Islamic resources. But balanced and accurate materials are not always available or affordable. Working together, we can change this situation. You can sponsor a library today!
“For only $150 (package value over $300), we’ll send these enlightening materials to a library of your choice that is interested in receiving them. CAIR has embarked upon an ambitious campaign to put quality materials about Islam in all 16,000 public libraries in the United States. If every person or community agrees to sponsor up to 10 libraries, we will easily meet our goal, Insha’Allah (God willing).
“You can help educate your fellow Americans about Islam as a religion of peace and justice that has a rich civilization and culture.”
The Web site says southern libraries in the Bible Belt — specifically Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana — have the highest percentage of orders for the Islamic books. New England and the Pacific Northwest have the lowest project participation.
“In Charlotte [N.C.],” CAIR spokeswoman Rabiah Ahmed said, “Muslims pooled resources to give. One individual has donated thousands of dollars for this; another one says they will give to one library a month until the project is done. It’s a way of getting out accurate information on Islam.”
No foreign government is financing the project, she said, adding that CAIR’s goal is to move on to university libraries after all public libraries are serviced.
Runia Jahan, director of customer service for Astrolabe Pictures, the Sterling-based distributor for the books as well as other Islamic materials, said she receives thank-you letters “daily” for the donations.
What’s in there
The 18 items in the package are a collection of adult and children’s books, plus videos and some audiotapes. One 70-minute tape, “The Life of the Last Prophet,” written and produced by Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, is a biography of the Prophet Muhammad.
Also included is one video: “The Hajj: One American’s Pilgrimage to Mecca,” a 22-minute segment that appeared on ABC-TV’s “Nightline” about the yearly pilgrimage. Another, “Islam: A Closer Look,” a 30-minute sympathetic glance at the religion, features Georgetown University professor John Esposito, a specialist on Islam, and former Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, a Muslim.
One DVD, “Islam: Empire of Faith,” a three-hour PBS special narrated by actor Ben Kingsley, tells “the spectacular story of the great sweep of Islamic power and faith during its first 1,000 years, from the birth of the Prophet Muhammad to the peak of the Ottoman Empire. Evocative re-enactments and a remarkable exposition of Islamic art, artifacts and architecture are combined with interviews with scholars from around the world,” according to the Web site.
Several books are part of the package, including Mr. Esposito’s “The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?” “The Essential Koran” by Thomas Cleary, a scholar of East Asian religions; a biography “Critical Lives: Muhammad” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam,” both by Yahiya Emerick, director of the Islamic Foundation of North America in Queens, N.Y.
Two books offer favorable views of women in Islam — “Daughters of Another Path: Experiences of American Women Choosing Islam” by Carol L. Anway, and the 62-page “Gender Equity in Islam” by Jamal Badawi.
Several books describe American-Muslim life. They include “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” by Jack G. Shaheen; “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” by Sylviane A. Diouf, and the book by Mr. Findley, a former Republican member of Congress from Illinois.
A 64-page children’s book, “Eyewitness: Islam” by Philip Wilkinson, is provided. Two more children’s books published by Holiday House on the Islamic holiday of Ramadan and a handbook for instructors on how to teach about Islam in public schools round out the collection.
CAIR, however, is not the only special interest group that provides free books to libraries. The Church of Scientology, as well as Quakers and Christian Scientists, also donate. In the 1970s, backers of Campus Life, an evangelical Christian group for students, paid for subscriptions for its youth-oriented evangelistic magazine for local high school libraries.
Although anyone can pay to have one’s viewpoint represented in the local library, librarians have the right of refusal. For instance, pornography would be turned down in the Fairfax County library system, said Julie Pringle, who coordinates its book acquisitions.
“There are community standards,” she said. “We do not carry [the adult mens magazine] Hustler, but some libraries do.”
Librarians have a variety of criteria, she said, including whether the book has been reviewed in newspapers or magazines, whether the author is local, reader requests, the cost of the book and whether the viewpoint in it already is represented in the stacks.
Her library gets 3,600 requests per year for items. It ends up purchasing 358,000 books and other materials to add to a collection that now numbers 3 million.
“CAIR’s material was in demand and it has been used since we ordered it,” she said. “The local Islamic community uses this library heavily.”
The American Library Association has no guidelines on donations and does not track how many and which groups seek to donate materials, according to spokeswoman Larra Clark.
“Organizations donate materials to libraries all the time, although this is a fairly concerted effort,” she said, in reference to the CAIR project. Depending on their collection development policies, libraries do not have to accept donated materials — although most do. And libraries do not insert any caveats in their pages saying the book was donated by a special interest group.
Miss Ecelbarger of the Montgomery County system said she frequently receives calls from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, asking whether the library has the latest edition of the Book of Mormon. Librarians everywhere are swamped with purveyors of poetry, self-published books or items such as DVDs, which her system does not stock.
The CAIR material “was a pretty good supplement” to the county system’s collections, she said, “but we are not open to donations that are vastly inferior and won’t be checked out.”
Most of the CAIR books have been checked out twice or thrice since they arrived in January, she said, after doing a search of one of the system’s busier branches. “The Idiot’s Guide to Islam” has gone out 10 times.
Book donations do help advance the viewpoint of a religion whose followers feel they don’t get adequate publicity, said Sue Taylor, spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology. Many church members have donated founder L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics — The Modern Science of Mental Health,” “What is Scientology?” and other books to libraries for the past 25 years.
As for the effectiveness of donating books to libraries, “We have found our members’ efforts to be rewarding in that more people have read books by Mr. Hubbard,” she said. “They are looking and thinking for themselves concerning the Scientology religion, the Church’s social outreach programs on literacy and drug rehabilitation, and Mr. Hubbard.”
She attended CAIR’s press conference last year and left impressed.
“It is vital for people to know the truth about a subject, and one of the best ways is through books in libraries,” she said. “Each person can read and then judge for himself.”