In the early 90s I was privileged to serve in the board of the New York Council for the Humanities for a couple of years. One of their ongoing programs was an intensive summer seminar on a different humanities topic each year. The first year I was on the board the topic was Islam. As I recall, the seminar was under-enrolled that summer.
The following summer the topic was women's studies. The seminar was full. I was disturbed.
Clearly, women's issues are more than important. Over the years, beginning with close contact with the women's liberation movement of the late 60s and the 70s, I have come to agree with President Jimmy Carter on the urgency of stopping violence against women and with the many women who believe the unfinished business of the liberation of women is the key to solving the terrible challenges of the contemporary world.
I was disturbed not by the weight of the woman's topic but by the relative disregard for the previous summer's. Women's studies was already on the curriculum of many universities. There was no dearth of instruction. Islam, on the other hand, was terra incognita, blurred by the veils of Orientalism. A few years later everything changed, of course. As soon as airports re-opened, their bookstores offering passengers reading for their journeys were filled with books explaining the religion, the Koran, the life of the Prophet, you name it.
I don't even have to mention what terrible event prompted that rush toward understanding.
Yet, a few years earlier I was proud of the prescience of the organization I had just joined. Not that I was, or am, knowledgable. Hell, even today I know more about T. E. Lawrence (by the way, where is he when you need him?) than about anyone who's actually from the region. And my knowledge of the faith is sketchy at best. But some instinct told me my fellow board members had been spot on. This was the topic that was begging for a seminar for educated citizens. This was the big historical and contemporary phenomenon that was making a difference most folk outside its fold did not understand. Ignorant as I was, I just knew. Call me Cassandra. Or Ishmael. Sometimes I know shit.
The convergence between issues of Islam and women's issues is undeniable. But there was and is rampant ignorance of the former, while most citizens of the state of New York were either women or had close ties with them. None of my best friends were Muslims. The ones whose roots were in the Middle East were so secular I never even wondered about their religious antecedents.
Everything changed all too suddenly. And continues to change with the same violent suddenness. Even as it pleases me to have been part of an organization that understood what needed understanding and reflection, and it distressed me that such understanding turned out to be a voice clamoring -- how fitting! -- in the desert, I wished I'd made time to take that damn seminar myself, so years later I would not wake up to the news and wonder, along with so many of my fellow citizens, what the fuck was going on.