Saturday, January 5, 2013

Huntsville's Osher Lifetime Learning class offers history, culture of Islam

Kay Campbell

Gulsum Kucuksari, at left, talks with
Carol Codori and Bill McAlister after
one of the Islam: Rumor and Reality class
she taught for the Osher Lifetime Learning
Institute held in Huntsville at the
University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Kucuksari will teach the class for OLLI
again during the Spring 2013 semester.
(Courtesy of Linda McAlister)
When Gulsum Kucuksari, who was raised as a Muslim in Turkey, came to the U.S., she heard some surprising things about her faith.

“People were telling me about these 77 virgins for terrorists, and I didn’t understand it – in all my life, I have never heard this,” Kucuksari said. "The Quran does not promise virgins for terrorists."

She was describing the class on Islam she teaches for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Huntsville. “I thought it was funny.”

Not so funny, she said, was the reaction of her mother, back in Turkey, when she told her that in the U.S., Muslims are seen as terrorists by many people.

“This made her very sad,” Kucuksari said. “My parents and other Muslims don’t understand that. They don’t see any relation between our religion and these people. They live their lives trying to educate their children, make ends meet – how life goes here is how life goes there. Terrorism is condemned in the Quran.”

More education needed

Kucuksari, who holds a master’s in Christian-Muslim relations from Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, is completing a doctorate in Turkish studies from the University of Arizona. Her dissertation will center on the suppression and survival of the Islamic identity of Kurds, an ethnic minority in Turkey.

Kucuksari volunteers to teach the class on Islam for OLLI, a class she will repeat this spring, because she knows people have questions about the faith that continues to be central to the life of her and her family. The Osher classes meet on the campus of the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Kucuksari's study of the Kurds has also helped Kucuksari understand how people can confuse the actions of a few extremists with the entire Muslim world. Her studies about Kurds have raised questions among her Turkish friends, most of whom classify Kurds as a violent group. The Kurdish minority includes people who have done terrorist acts in Turkey as the Kurds agitate for their own independent country, she said, but those extremists don’t represent the heart of the Kurdish people.

The answer, she said, lies in education, not stereotyping.

“The brains (masterminds) of all these terrorist activities are more to blame than these uneducated young with no opportunities who are made suicide bombers,” Kucuksari said. “The message of Islam is one of social justice, loving God and loving our fellow human beings.”

Gulsum Kucuksari, at right, her son, Tarik, 2,
leave room for guests at their family's table
in their apartment in Huntsville, Alabama,
in late December 2012. Kucuksari volunteers
to teach "Islam: Rumor and Reality" for
Huntsville's branch of the Osher Lifelong
Learning Institute, which meets in classrooms
at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Kucuksari, who holds a master's in
Christian-Muslim relations from Hartford Seminary,
is completing a doctorate in Turkish studies.
(Kay Campbell /
Kucuksari designs the class to answer students' questions, but also to provide an historic sweep of Islam.

She also surveys how the Middle East has been seen in Western culture and what Arabic culture was like before Islam.

The combination offers those who take the class a context for understanding Islam that pre-dates the back-and-forth of contemporary West-East clashes.

"God is compassionate to everyone -- not only to Muslims and believers, but also to atheists," Kucuksari said. "God grants food to all, and we are to share all the bounties of God."

Her lectures, along with the invitation to class members to visit in her home and meet her son and her husband, who teaches in the electrical engineering department at Alabama A&M University, has made for a compelling class, say people who took the class in the fall.

Islam, Christianity, Judaism -- and the Tao

“I learned not only is Islam so close to Judeo-Christian beliefs in its tenets, but it has a lot going on in common with the Tao,” said Carol Condor, a retired educational psychologist who was among about 30 adults who took the class in the fall. “For Muslims, the source of information about God is truly all around them. And there is a focus on a set of precepts and good thinking.”

Many of the stories and precepts taught
in the Bible can also be found in the Quran,
says Gulsum Kucuksari, who teaches a class
about the history and theology of Islam for
the Osher Lifetime Learning Institute, which
meets in Huntsville at UAH.
(Kay Campbell /
The class also gives students the opportunity to discuss some of the complexity behind terms that are often treated as one-dimensional by most Americans.

“It was quite interesting to learn many of the details of how the religion is actually practiced,” said Ed Bernstein, who also took the class. “What stuck in my mind the most was the real meaning of words like ‘jihad’ and ‘sharia law.’ There is so much more to these concepts than the stereotypes presented to us in the media.”

The class, which will last six weeks for OLLI’s spring semester, provides the best of what the OLLI program is designed to do, students say: Offer adults 50 and older an inexpensive way to learn new things and discuss some big issues.

“I am grateful that OLLI offers a forum for lifetime learners to discuss challenging current topics in a safe environment,” said Linda McAlister, a retired music teacher who took Kucuksari’s fall class with her husband, Bill McAlister. “Gulsum's class was very enlightening, and everyone was free to discuss their opinions and ask questions.”


1 comment:

  1. It's inpirational what Mrs. Kucuksari has done. It makes one wish they had the courage and dedication to be able to do what she is doing.
    Also, I believe it's very admirable that her students didn't just settle for what the media presented them with, but made a special effort to seek the actual facts.
    Thank you all...