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Islam in focus at seminar

A panel of Oregon professors and other experts on the Middle East are trying to ease "Islamophobia" and debunk myths about Middle Eastern culture during a two-day conference that continues today at Southern Oregon University.

"Debunking the Clash of Civilizations: Understanding Islam, Islamophobia and the Middle East" will include presentations and question-and-answer sessions aimed at spreading awareness about a culture many believe is misunderstood in America. "We feel that there's a big need for much better understanding of both the Middle East and Islam," said Herbert Rothschild, chairman of Peace House in Ashland, which is co-sponsoring the event along with the SOU United Nations Club.

Rothschild said ignorance about the Middle East has led to violence and bigotry, and better public understanding of the culture in the region could help.

According to the SOU United Nations Club, about 23 percent of the world's population follows Islam, yet Americans tend to focus only on the current conflict between the United States and al-Qaida, the Taliban or other fundamentalist groups. "We need to understand the Middle East as a region, its culture and some of its conflicts," said Rothschild.

"In a nutshell, we're dealing with areas of vast ignorance."

While she was posting fliers for the event around Ashland, SOU United Nations Club member Kathleen Gamer said, one Ashland store owner refused to allow the flier to hang in her store because she "did not like Muslims."

The event isn't about "liking Muslims" but about understanding a culture, Gamer said.

Gamer said that while people have become more tolerant of other cultures, tolerance is not enough.

"Tolerant is not a good word, it means just to tolerate each other. But we need to remember we're all in this together," said Gamer. "This is a very timely event. It's a learning experience, to come listen."

Speakers for the conference include SOU conflict resolution organizer Flamur Vehapi, Reza Mohajerinejad, an author and participant in the 1999 Iranian student uprising, SOU professors Robert Harrison and Shamsul Alam, Portland State University professor John Mandaville and Kanaan Kanaan, a Middle Eastern student adviser at PSU.

Rothschild said he hopes that people who attend the conference will broaden their knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and spread that awareness to others.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there," he said. "Any increase in understanding is always a great achievement."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.