Dave Grimland is not a Muslim, nor does he claim to be an expert on Islam.
But the former diplomat, who spent nearly three decades working in predominantly Muslim countries, has invested the past five years speaking about Islam across Montana and beyond.
His purpose: to help Americans question stereotypes that breed tension and violence between the West and followers of the world’s second-largest religion.
“(After) 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we were being fed an image of Muslims that did not connect, in any way, with my years of experience with them,” Grimland said.
“The perceptions of both sides — the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world — are based on political and media stereotypes.”
In Plentywood, 50 people traveled through a snowstorm to hear Grimland speak. Down in Birney, two dozen showed up.
On Thursday evening, Billings residents will get a chance to hear the man whom the Los Angeles Times referred to as “the Muslim interpreter” speak at the Billings Committee on Foreign Relations.
Grimland’s speaking tour traces back to a class — essentially a “primer” on Islam — that he taught through the adult education program in his hometown of Columbus. Interest spread, and an article in the Gazette several years ago caught the eye of national media, which led to more nationwide engagements, radio interviews and a DVD titled “Just Like Us.”
In the last five years, he’s spoken at more than 100 venues, and he’s gathered an e-mail following, representing all spectrums of political persuasions, that counts more than 130.
His message is that the vast majority of Muslims share the same concerns as Americans. Citing sources and articles, he also dispels the notion that moderate Muslims haven’t tried to denounce the violent extremists who share their religion.
Most amazing to Grimland is the reception he’s received.
“I think I’ve covered every corner of Montana and a huge chunk of the middle,” he said.
“It’s very encouraging to me to see the interest of small-town residents of Montana, who come out to participate. They came in Carhartts and muddy work boots — and not just to sit and listen but to take an active role.”
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By why do they show up in the first place, to hear someone they don’t know talk about a subject they’re not familiar with?
Grimland speculates that some may have personal ties — a son or daughter in the military — that draw them.
One woman at his Plentywood talk summed it up simply.
“‘You know, we Montanans like to sniff our source of our information,’” Grimland said, repeating her comment. “I think that has some legitimacy. Even though they don’t know me, they have more trust in getting information from someone who is there in front of them.”
Yet, his audiences are not without skeptics.
Most of his sessions have attracted one or two “mildly hostile” individuals. In nearly every instance, however, the rest of the audience has censured the antagonist and restored a sense of civility back to the debate.
“You don’t have to agree with Muslims’ world view, and you don’t have to like it,” Grimland said. “But it’s vitally important to understand it.”
Grimland knows of no one else who does quite what he does, but he’s cites student organizations and professors (he’s aware of an adjunct professor at Montana State University) who strive for similar goals.
He’s also encouraged by surveys that show awareness is growing.
One survey, conducted in 2002, revealed that only 2 percent of Americans knew the name of the Muslims’ God (Allah) or its holy scripture (the Koran). Posed similar questions by the same polling firm last month, 58 percent of those surveyed were able to respond correctly.
“It’s maybe not enough, but we’ve come a long way,” he said.