Building bridges—figuratively as opposed to literally—isn’t easy. It’s like cultivating a garden of precious plants growing in a hostile environment, where you have to constantly nurture the plants just to keep them alive another day.
Akbar Ahmed is a man who often finds himself at the mercy of world events as he cultivates his own mission to promote interfaith dialogue and build bridges of understanding between the West and Islam.
Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic Studies at American University, as well as an author, playwright and teacher. Ahmed, who is originally from Pakistan, has been called “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam” by the British Broadcasting Corp.
The early days of November proved particularly daunting, hectic and emotional for Ahmed as he rushed off to lend his expertise on television networks such as CNN and the BBC in the wake of jarring events in Pakistan, when President Gen. Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency and images of Pakistani lawyers in suits and ties battling soldiers and police were splattered on front pages around the world.
Clashes and crises such as what is occurring in Pakistan make up the daily reality that informs Ahmed’s mission—serving as urgent illustrations of the importance of building bridges between cultures that increasingly appear opposed to one another.
Bridge-builder isn’t officially listed on Ahmed’s lengthy, imposing resume, but it is the subtext in almost every part of his personal and professional life. This mission punctuates his daily work of teaching, it is the substance of his interviews with the media, as well as his many speaking engagements, and it’s at the heart of his interfaith initiatives and activities.
“My life, like that of many others, changed when 9/1l happened,” he often says. As a Muslim living in this post-9/11 world, Ahmed seeks opportunities for rapprochement and understanding in an atmosphere where strongly held views, even prejudices, present a portrait of Muslims, Jews and Christians talking across a great chasm.
Ahmed had only just begun at American University when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred. “I’m an anthropologist,” he said. “That’s how I saw myself then, as a scholar.”
But truth be told, he had always been something a little more worldly than that. Ahmed served in the elite Pakistani civil service, holding the rank of ambassador, with posts as commissioner of Quetta and political agent in the volatile area of South Waziristan
Volatility, in fact, was something he experienced early on. Ahmed was only a child in 1947 when his Muslim family was caught up in one of the largest upheavals in modern history: the partition of the subcontinent that created the modern states of Pakistan and India.
In the massive migrations that ensued, Ahmed’s family decided to leave Delhi and make their home in Pakistan during a violent and chaotic time in which hundreds of thousands died. Ahmed even recalls his family fortuitously missing a train that returned to the station full of slaughtered bodies.
That searing memory, however, did not come up in a recent class on cultural diplomacy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where Ahmed was a guest lecturer only days after the latest turmoil in Pakistan. But the country’s history certainly did.
Ahmed, warmly introduced by the teacher, Cynthia P. Schneider, as a “renowned scholar,” wrote one word on the chalkboard of the small classroom: Jinnah. “If you want to know about Pakistan,” he said, “think of Jinnah.”
That would be Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the man who, through his dogged determination in an era of great historic figures, almost single-handedly willed the creation of Pakistan. Ahmed admitted that Jinnah was a hero to him, the founder of a modern state.
“Jinnah is one sort of model that today makes up the world of Islam,“ he told the class. “There are three Muslim models or archetypes today,” he explained, identifying them as “Ajmer,” or the benign, spiritual and gentle strain of Islam seen in the Sufis; “Deoband,” which refers to “mainstream Islamic movements” that are also activist, reformist, socially conservative and sometimes extremist and radical; and “Aligarh,” or the more modernist approaches. “Jinnah,” he said, “you must know, was the embodiment of the modernist approach.”
Those three strains of archetypes figure strongly into Ahmed’s thinking, his explanation of the Islamic world as part of his bridge-building activities, and his identity as a scholar. They also form the underpinning of “Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization,” an astounding book resulting from Ahmed’s own dramatic journey.
Joined by a team of energetic young Americans as his research assistants, Ahmed traveled through Pakistan, Indonesia and Syria to meet with everyone from mullahs and generals to world leaders and cab drivers—secularists and devout conservative Muslims alike.
Three of the members of that journey were in attendance at Ahmed’s guest lecture at Georgetown: Jonathan Hayden, Frankie Martin and Hailey Woldt, who are also all members of an Ahmed-taught honors program.
Ahmed recalled: “When we visited the tomb of Jinnah, which is a major tourist attraction in that part of the world, Hailey, out of respect to the stature of the man and the occasion, decided to cover her head. She didn’t have to because it isn’t a shrine. But she had the presence of mind to show that kind of respect and that impressed people, that kind of sensitivity.”
To Ahmed, such small acts of curiosity, kindness and respect, as well as the big ideas, are critical to bridge building. “We need to understand each other as human beings, and we are now at a key juncture where we can move toward that goal—or not,” he said.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Ahmed began, almost unconsciously, to reach out and find ways to form connections among different religions. He and Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig, who heads the Washington Hebrew Congregation, along with Bishop John Chane, the eighth Episcopal bishop of Washington, formed a remarkable friendship that began with coffee meetings and soon moved to more pro-active interfaith events, including the annual Interfaith March for Peace. Appearing separately and together before panels and groups, the three men would espouse and point out the shared values and roots among the three Abrahamic, or monotheistic, religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
“People don’t realize the commonality, the mutual respect among religious leaders for key figures in their theologies. This is the kind of information that must be shared,” Ahmed said.
For instance, in early November, Ahmed was off to Kansas City to participate in a unique dialogue with Judea Pearl—father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered in Pakistan—as part of a series of events titled “Muslim-Jewish Understanding.”
“Slowly, people are accepting this,” Ahmed said the night before leaving for Kansas City. “I think it was difficult. At first, there were many Muslims and Jewish people who could not accept this and were aghast. But things have changed and Judea and I are friends.”
Recently, Ahmed also wrote a play called “Noor,” which received a staged reading at Theater J of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center. The actors, including Ahmed‘s daughter, used a set that had been built for a play about Jewish settlers in the West Bank, only this time the production centered around the three brothers of a kidnapped young Muslim woman as they explained the varieties of Islam.
A revised version of “Noor” was performed at the Abramson Family Recital Hall at American University’s Katzen Arts Center for two sold-out performances in mid-November. Panelists in the post-performance discussion included Pakistani Ambassador Mahmud Ali Durrani, Bishop Chane, Washington Times columnist Tony Blankley, BBC News anchor Matt Frei, Washington Post reporter Nora Boustany, and Leon Harris of the ABC show “Capital Sunday.”
However, Ahmed’s many bridge-building activities, his travels, his two classes, and his string of interviews on television and radio have clearly taken their toll. He has lost weight and admits he doesn’t sleep well. “Yes, it is hard,” he said. “It has been hard on my family, my wife and daughter,” he added. “I get e-mails and letters, some of it threatening or ugly, much of it gratifying. Sometimes, it makes you very weary. And when things happen it can be discouraging. I do not look over my shoulder. You cannot. You must keep on.”
In the company of his young students at a coffeehouse in Georgetown recently, you could see the rewards of Ahmed’s persistence. His three research assistants—Hayden, Woldt and Martin—were going to Old Dominion University to lecture about their experiences in the Islamic world. “They are not seedlings,” Ahmed said. “They are very gifted, talented young adults in their own right.” Nevertheless, the three obviously admire him. “It was the most amazing experience,” Martin said. “Everywhere we went, Dr. Ahmed was like … like a rock star.”
Although the students are clearly impressed by Ahmed’s bridge-building efforts, Ahmed is worried that most Americans don’t see the value of interfaith dialogue. He complained that there hasn’t been substantive talk on the campaign trail by the candidates running for president in either party party. “I don‘t hear anything about building bridges. It’s about security, about standing up, about the war on terror and feeling safe, about troop levels.
“There are fundamental misconceptions about the West and about Islam on both sides,” he continued. “Americans think women are treated badly in the Muslim world. They think Islam is a violent religion. They think that democracy won’t work in the Islamic world. Conversely, Muslims think that Westerners are violent and destructive, that they are obsessed with sex and they are greedy.
“We are at a crossroads now,” he declared. “It is a critical time.”
Driven by the increasing religious divide throughout the world and his own urgent passion and worries, Ahmed always finds ways to bring with him everywhere he goes the tools, the nails and hammers, for bridge building. Whether it’s a one-on-one dialogue, the books or the play he’s written, a speaking engagement at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, a march for peace, or the many classes, trips and events that fill his days, it’s clear that Ahmed is a man on an important mission that, like him, never stops.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.