Beliefnet
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Kambiz GhaneaBassiri is a Muslim. He has a doctorate in Islamic studies from Harvard University and teaches at Reed College here.

He has one book to his credit and is halfway through writing his second, a history of Islam in the United States since Colonial times.

He is a Carnegie Scholar, one of his profession's highest honors. He is living, for the next year, in Morocco, where he is helping educate moderate Islamic leaders. He is the father of two children and has been married to his high school sweetheart for 13 years.

He is smart, articulate, thoughtful and innovative. His dark hair and goatee are perfectly trimmed. He seems born to button-down shirts and khaki slacks.

His is a career that many academics would envy. And he is all of 32 years old. GhaneaBassiri was born in Tehran, capital of Iran, and came to the Los Angeles area with his parents when he was 10. The older of his parents' two sons, he showed signs of being a teacher by the time he was in middle school. He'd assign his younger brother, Kamyar, to write essays to improve his writing skills.

"I'd always do it," said Kamyar, three years younger and a lawyer in Los Angeles. "There's just something in his presence that made me do it.

The tough questions and complex answers that GhaneaBassiri grapples with are the same ones that Americans wrestle with if they want to understand Islam and its place in the modern world.

"He was my best teacher, without a doubt," said Sam Kigar, a 2006 Reed graduate. "He taught me that there are simple answers out there. It's just that they rarely fit the questions.”

Americans often don't realize that Islam, like Christianity, is incredibly diverse in its expressions, GhaneaBassiri says. Christians across the world don't agree on every social issue, and neither do Muslims. When he teaches a class on Islam, this is his starting place.

He shows his classes slides of mosques, snapshots taken from around the world: The pencil-thin minarets of Turkey. Mosques made of mud that look like termite hills in West Africa. Rural areas in Saudi Arabia where simple markings on the ground outline a sacred space for prayer. After they see the slides, students such as Kigar begin to realize how culture and context shape expressions of Islam.

"The main thing that I've learned from him is that Islam is whatever its adherents make of it," said Kigar, 22. "Interpretation is always based on a particular context. Reading the Quran as an outsider with today's perspective won't give a holistic view of what Islam is and already has been."

If a life of teaching can be boiled down to one sentence, that one would work for GhaneaBassiri. It is wrong, he says, to draw conclusions about Islam based only on one reading of the Quran, on the statements of a few Muslim leaders or on the culture of one group of believers. It is inaccurate to isolate an issue -- such as Western culture, democracy or the role of women -- and suggest that Muslims have one response to it.

"I don't like talking about Islam in political terms," he said. For that reason, he declines to comment on Osama bin Laden and Zacarias Moussaoui.

"But I hear questions about whether Islam and democracy are compatible, or about whether Islam and women's rights are compatible," he said. "We have all these Muslims living in the United States, participating in a democratic society, and they are excited to do so. Why do we ask whether Islam and democracy are compatible?"

A recent Pew Trust study, which found that Muslims from around the world and non-Muslims in the West are sharply at odds in their perceptions of each other, is "problematic," GhaneaBassiri said.

"What does it mean to treat American Muslims as non-Western when in actuality they are a part of American history?" he asked. Too often, Muslims and non-Muslims do not think of their own experience with each other as much as they respond to extremist views that are reflected by the media.

"If you ask a Muslim, `What are your perceptions of Westerners?' they are not thinking of their next-door neighbors or their co-workers," he said.

"When we ask non-Muslims what they think of Muslims, they, too, are not necessarily thinking about the Muslims they might know but also about the violent acts ascribed to Muslims in the public square."

GhaneaBassiri wants to change the way Muslims and non-Muslims think and talk about Islam. And he said if he has to do it one person at a time, he will.

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