Ali Asani views religious and cultural literacy as essential to the project of democracy | Harvard Crimson

Ali Asani views religious and cultural literacy as essential to the project of democracy | Harvard Crimsonby Joshua A. Goldstein Sep 14, 2016 for Harvard Crimson

I meet Ali S. Asani ’77, a professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, on Labor Day. The Barker Center is technically closed, and as the sole occupants of the building, we climb the three flights of stairs in unusual silence. “Water or tea?” he asks me as soon as we enter his office, as if I am a familiar guest in his home.

I pause before answering—struggling to reclaim control of my eyes, which have latched onto Asani’s desk. Where tomes of reading may typically sit, atop Asani’s desk lies instead a sea of papers. Like a game of Jenga, it appears as though any paper added to the bunch may push them all over the edge. I am almost scared of moving, should my physical actions disrupt the equilibrium that exists in Barker Center 305. And yet, I sit, eager to delve into the mind behind that mound of curiosity and exploration.

Asani first came to Harvard in 1973 from Kenya, which at the time, he says, “was racially divided, marked by difference.” He faced a series of challenges to his identity: from classmates who questioned his African and Asian identities because of his skin color, or who prodded him about whether lions roamed around in his hometown of Nairobi, to faculty who held Sunni-centric views of Islam and “looked at anyone who was not [Sunni] as heretics.” Asani describes that “behind a lot of the questioning, there was a huge knowledge gap: People just didn’t know they were making assumptions.”

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