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Series targets building bridges between Muslims, non-Muslims

The Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Amherst and Critical Connections in Longmeadow are offering “Bridging Muslim/Non-Muslim Divides,” an educational series on Islam and issues facing the Muslim world.

The series begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Jones Library in Amherst with “Between the Sacred and Profane: The Future of Political Islam.”

The event will feature two speakers, David Mednicoff, director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Natana J. DeLong-Bas, visiting faculty at Boston College and editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia on Islam and Women.

Mednicoff will talk about the creation of new governments in the Middle East following the Arab uprisings, and DeLong-Bas will address the topic of how women’s rights have been affected by the rise to power of the Islamic political parties who led the uprisings, said organizer Mehlaqa Samdani, founder and executive director of Critical Connections. Small group discussions will follow their talks.

The six-event series will also consist of discussions on gender and empowerment in the Muslim world in April, on United States policy in Afghanistan in May and on the role of war in the Muslim world in September. In October, there will be a screening of “David,” a film about a Muslim boy growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn.

The series will close out with a symposium in November that organizers hope will be a dialogue among educators, media officials and law-enforcement personnel from across the Valley.

Dates and locations for these events are still being determined. All events in the series are free and open to the public.

Samdani, of Longmeadow, said she founded Critical Connections in April 2013 as a way to increase communication and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. Past events included a panel discussion on Muslim extremism following the bombings at the Boston Marathon and an informational session on foreign and domestic policy to coincide with the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, she said.

Born and raised in Pakistan, Samdani first moved to the United States to attend the University of Denver in 1996, then went back to Pakistan when she graduated in 1999. She returned to the United States to attend graduate school at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 2002, and has remained here since.

Now the mother of two children, ages 7 and 8, she said she founded Critical Connections, which she runs out of her home, in part with her children in mind.

“I don’t want them to grow up in a society where they have to be ashamed of their Muslim identity,” she said.

The Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, 447 West St., was founded by Paula Green of Leverett in 1994. Its mission is to develop programs to bridge gaps among people who have faced conflict.

Olivia Dreier of Belchertown, executive director of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding since 2011, said the series aims to address divides that have occurred between Muslims and non-Muslims since 9/11, and most recently since the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

“It’s important to have these conversations at the community level,” said Dreier. “The purpose is not to educate non-Muslims. The purpose is to create real dialogue.”

A full schedule of events that will be updated as dates and locations are determined is available on the website for the Karuna Center at www.karunacenter.org. More information on Critical Connections can be found at www.criticalconnections.org.

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