More imagining: This unity has double meaning

UVA professor Farzaneh Milani welcomes each new group of undergrads to her course on women’s studies with the same exercise – she tells them to take out a sheet of paper and free associate.
“Muslim woman,” she begins, and the class jots down an assorted, but limited, selection of descriptors, the most frequent being “veiled,” “oppressed,” and “exotic.” Then Milani tries “Christian woman” and gets looks of confusion. “Which Christian woman?” they ask. “What kind of Christian woman?”
One out of every five persons on the planet is Muslim. Muslims in America have increased more than 12-fold in the past three decades. They represent emigrants and third generation Americans; believers and secular Muslims; Southeast Asians, Africans, and Arabs. Why, then, is there still a homogenous Western perception of Islam?
“In its golden age, Islam was a convergence of cultures,” explains Milani, who will address the topic of Muslim Cultural Diversity in North America as part of UVA’s “Engaging The Mind” lecture series. “It was characterized by allowing different cultures to harmonize. It was multi-cultural in the true sense,” she says.
The lecture, which will also feature UVA professor Abdulaziz Sachedina, is entitled “Imagining Unity,” a billing that smacks of John Lennon and dated Coca-Cola ads, but which is actually more provocative as a double entendre. As evidenced by Milani’s students, westerners have developed a one-dimensional characterization of Islam which they apply willy-nilly to a huge and nuanced populace.
“How in the world can we talk about such a vast variety of races, nationalities, and cultures as if we are talking about a single Muslim? “ asks Milani.
Indeed, we are guilty of  “Imagining Unity” that isn’t necessarily there.
Of course, Milani and event organizers are probably leaning toward the John Lennon interpretation of the lecture title and wish people would stop getting semantic with their philosophical gerunds. By focusing on diversity, the organizers hope that we can begin to appreciate the unifying qualities among Muslims, all believers, and humans generally. History, says Milani, “is loud and clear about one thing– the more you open your boundaries and allow more cultures in, that will be your Golden Age.”
Of course that’s asking an awful lot of the INS, an organization that lives for boxes, many of which are labeled “Muslim,” some of which imply “diversity,” and none of which suggest “unity.” 

Imagining Unity, featuring UVA’s Farzaneh Milani and Aziz Sachedina, is free and open to the public. It takes place May 1  at The Jefferson Theater on the Downtown Mall. 7-9pm. Limited seating. Reservations at 1-866-UVA-OUTREACH.