Monday, June 13, 2005

Beacon No. 45: Money Well Spent


In Saturday's Los Angeles Times, "U.S. Trip Is Positively Eye-Opening for Muslims" features a group of Muslim scholars who visit the U.S. under State Department auspices:

Zeenat Shaukat Ali, an Islamic studies professor from Bombay, India, marveled at the freedom of American Muslims to practice their religion and the active role of women in mosque life. In her country, she told an interfaith crowd in Claremont, many mosques don't even allow women to enter.

"Muslims here are free to follow their own culture, dress the way they want, go to educational institutes and train themselves," she said. "American culture has not overcome the culture of Muslims but accepted it."

Quratulain Bakhteari, a Pakistani social activist, read the holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity for the first time during visits to synagogues and churches here and said she was amazed to find deep similarities to Islamic teachings.

State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is currently spending about $14 million on a wide portfolio of exchange programs, including $550,000 to bring the South Asian group to the U.S. Not all was sweetness and light during the clerics' visit, though:

Bakhteari, for instance, urged her American audience at the Methodist church [in Claremont, Calif.] to address the nation's expanding gap between rich and poor.

Farida E. Arif, executive director of a job development agency for poor rural women in Bangladesh, expressed dismay at the waste she observed here—the widespread use of disposable plates, for instance. "With all this money, a lot of development can be done in the world," she said.

She also urged more American women to step up to more high-profile leadership roles.

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs isn't just interested in bringing opinion leaders over, though; its Web site also lists exchange opportunities for lower socioeconomic tiers, like an au pair program that brings foreign nationals for work and at least six credit hours' worth of education.

(Thanks, per usual, to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

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