Expand your knowledge base and reconsider some ideas you might already have about Islam in a new academic lecture series starting this fall, with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago.

A version of the following was originally published September 26 to OakPark.com as a One View column by John Woods. Woods is an Oak Park resident, University of Chicago professor of Iranian and Central Asian History, and former director of the University of Chicago's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, which is active in its goal of enhancing public knowledge of the Middle East. On October 4, Woods challenged common negative stereotypes about Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East.

How do Americans feel about Muslims? 

Over the past two decades, public opinion polling companies like the Pew Research Center have consistently reported Americans' widespread ambivalence, if not outright antipathy, toward Islam and Muslims. While anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. is not a new phenomenon, a considerable amount of data suggests that, in the past two years, there has been a precipitous rise in anti-Muslim activity, including intimidation, harassment, and hate crimes. 

Where do these negative attitudes come from, and how are they sustained? As an Oak Park resident and University of Chicago professor of Middle Eastern history, I'll begin to explore this question in the first lecture that is part of a larger series titled, "Understanding the World of Islam." Please join me at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., on Wednesday, October 4 at 7 pm in the Main Library Veterans Room. 

In my presentation, I'll explore some of the most common negative stereotypes and distortive representations that have appeared in a wide variety of media for several decades, if not centuries. These stereotypes depict Islam and Muslims as irrational, intolerant, violent, and a threat to Western civilization. 

In the current political climate, if we fail to challenge intolerance of Islam, we risk further social marginalization of Muslims and an expansion of discriminatory public policy rooted in fear and mistrust of fellow citizens, immigrants, and refugees. 

In order to put forward a vigorous and persuasive argument against anti-Muslim sentiment, I believe it is of critical importance to understand the pattern of negative stereotypes that reinforces it. 

We believe our public library is a natural place to have a community discussion about topics that can be difficult to discuss. It is our hope this series will help broaden people's knowledge of Islam and deepen their understanding of the diversity of thought and experience in Muslim societies, past and present. 

Throughout the series, our aim is to be educational. My university colleagues and I brought the idea of exploring this topic in Oak Park to the library earlier this year. As a result, the 2017-18 series will include more events and expert speakers to be planned for the spring of 2018. 

We hope to see you at the library on Wednesday, October 4, at 7 pm, and again on November 8 for the series' second leure exploring the Qur'an.

A printed version of recommended media, compiled by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Chicago, will be available at the event.