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Islam Oral Histories Compiled on Web Site

(Posted February 3, 2003)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- A Juniata College sociology professor is using the techniques of oral history compilation to create a Web site that features videotaped interviews with Muslim students from Juniata, who talk about the reactions and misunderstandings they experienced at the college and in the surrounding community after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I realized that the religion of Islam was becoming characterized in a way that was inappropriate," says Cynthia Merriwether-Devries, assistant professor of sociology at Juniata. "As an African-American woman and a member of the Quakers, a historic peace church, I wanted to make sure that the information available to the public was accurate, informative and well-structured."

The Web site, http://projects.Juniata.edu/reflections/, titled "Reflections and Reconciliations from Juniata College," was created as part of a cooperative project between 81 colleges that comprise the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE, pronounced "nightly"). The group, funded by a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, created a multimedia resource based designed to help people understand the events of Sept. 11.

Merriwether-DeVries, a sociologist who specializes in oral histories as part of her research interests, believes the personal stories of Muslim students might best help non-Muslms understand the tenets of Islamic faith. "No one really asked how Muslims feel when they see their religion portrayed as violent on TV and in print," she says.

She interviewed five Juniata students, three of whom agreed to post their video clips on the Web site. The three students are: Mohammed El Zahhar, an international student from Cairo, Egypt; Ahmed Zeerak, a freshman from Woodbridge, Va., originally from Afghanistan; and Mohammed Jami, a freshman from Little Meadows, Pa.

Merriwether-DeVries has plans to expand the project to include reflections from incoming Juniata students who are Muslims and by doing yearly follow-up interviews with the students who have previously been interviewed. She also plans to post remarks by Penn State University students who are members of the Penn State Muslim Students Association. "My goal is to get as many people as possible to sit down with me and talk about their experiences," she says.

The goal of a good oral historian, according to Merriwether-Devries, is not to impose a point of view on the interview. "The ideas is not to shape the content," she explains. "My role is to help the person identify and express the content."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.