Understanding the Diversity of Islam
An Interview with Dr. Akbar Ahmed
Global awareness helps us make sense of the world. Opportunities to meet new people, travel and study multiple histories and cultures set in motion new ideas that enrich our lives. Dr. Akbar Ahmed, former U.N. Ambassador and current Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, has worked tirelessly to raise global awareness about the variety and diversity of Islam. His most recent book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013), challenges the preconceived notion that Islamic terrorists are motivated solely by religious and ideological extremism. Rather, he explores the connections among tribal identities, codes of honor in traditional communities to explain certain aspects of terrorist behavior. Acts based on tribal revenge, he suggests, “framed in the traditional language of Islam are transformed into global revolutionary activism.”
Before glibly accepting conventional explanations to explain behaviors of people from other cultures, Professor Ahmed advocates making new connections through dialogue, understanding, tolerance and respect for the thought, opinions and lives of others. Knowledge Without Borders™ interviewed Dr. Ahmed about his efforts.
Knowledge Without Borders™: What have you done to advance a multifaceted understanding of Islam and the modern world?
Ahmed: For my project “Islam in the Age of Globalization”, I traveled with my young students and research assistants to try to understand what Muslims around the world are saying, who they are following and how they feel about the West and modernity. We found in our travels that many Muslims are rejecting modernity and saying that they want to be exclusivist and draw borders around Islam, so to speak. They feel that Islam in being threatened and that they must do everything they can to preserve and protect the traditions in Islam.
Ahmed: Many Muslims are rejecting modernity as a reaction to what they see as injustices towards the Muslim world or Islam. For my project “Islam in the Age of Globalization”, I traveled with my young students and research assistants to try to understand what Muslims around the world are saying, who they are following and how they feel about the West and modernity. We found in our travels that many Muslims are rejecting modernity and saying that they want to be exclusivist and draw borders around Islam, so to speak. They feel that Islam in being threatened and that they must do everything they can to preserve and protect the traditions in Islam.
In speaking of the failures of the Muslim world, we must not forget to mention the struggle in promoting genuine democracy. After September 11, we found ourselves faced with tough questions: Is Islam compatible with democracy? Are there any democratic leaders in Islam? The answer to both of course is yes. One example is the founder of Pakistan (at the time in 1947 the largest Muslim country), Mr. Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam. It would behoove both the U.S. and the Muslim world to take a look at Jinnah for his example answers the questions raised above. Jinnah can be a point of contact between the Muslim world and the West.
Knowledge Without Borders: Are there specific features of Islamic society that act as obstacles to Muslims becoming full members of the 21st century globalized world?
Ahmed: There is a highly developed sense of justice in Islam. When Muslims see the lack of justice in the world, they are aggravated and many lean toward a brand of Islam that rejects the West and conflates the West and modernity, thereby rejecting the newly globalized world. We saw this again and again during the research trip through the Muslim world. Examples that were given were the Palestinian situation, Chechnya, Abu Ghraib, Kashmir–and that doesn’t include the harsh rhetoric being played endlessly in the media. Now you have a range of activity throughout the Muslim world from the Taliban in Afghanistan to the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia which is exclusivist in approach.
Knowledge Without Borders™: What roles can young Americans play to bridge the gap between the United States and the Muslim world?
Ahmed: I have been pushing the young to go out and become the real ambassadors from America. The youth are the ones who should be tagged to go out and represent the United States to the rest of the world. They are American, love America and can represent the true values of the U.S. instead of letting foreign policy dictate what the rest of the world thinks about America. On my trip, a group of young Americans accompanied me through 8 different countries. While we did encounter high levels of anti-American feelings, these feelings softened as we talked with them.
We went to mosques, madrasas, community centers and universities. For some of the people that we encountered, these were the first Americans that they had ever seen in person. Previously, their image of America was only what they saw on their news-bombs and tanks. I watched these young Americans stand up in front of hundreds of aggressive bearded men or frustrated university students and speak without fear and with great compassion. The atmosphere would change immediately. Friendship and understanding would often follow. I write about this in my forthcoming book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization. My team and I met with presidents, politicians, religious leaders, community leaders and ordinary Muslims to learn how they feel about the West, globalization and their own society. It was fascinating because the views of the ordinary Muslim on the street are rarely–if ever–heard, so we are able offer a unique view of globalization in the Islamic world and the reaction to the changes taking place.
Knowledge Without Borders™: You have suggested a “dialogue of civilizations” as a more successful approach than “clash of civilizations” when attempting to understand the relationship of Islam with the West. Why?
Ahmed: The clash exists because it has existed for a thousand years. We have had the centuries of the Crusades and then of European colonization spanning over a thousand years of history, which has made for a complex and difficult relationship between Islam and the West. But we have also had great periods of harmony, cultural synthesis and interaction of ideas.
The problem with the “clash of civilization” theory is that it can end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy if we let it. Which side wins out in the future will depend largely on the United States of America and its political leaders. If they continue what they are doing now, then the success of the religious parties in Muslim societies is guaranteed, because the errors being made by the United States in its foreign policy ensure the emergence and consolidation of the exclusivist groups. The continuation of grievances in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and now Lebanon expand the breeding ground for terrorists to recruit more people to their cause. This comes at great cost to Islam because it is ultimately a religion of balance and compassion. But all this is now being affected by the men of violence and emotion.
If the United States is able to understand this equation, maybe it will change its policy and help Islam regain its balance, which will calm the Muslim world and, therefore, the rest of the world. If that doesn’t happen, if we see the continuation of the clash of civilizations theory and its implementation, we will almost certainly see the emergence and consolidation of the exclusivists. Then, we will all be in for a violent, troublesome and uncertain 21st century. So we really need to ask: Has the clash theory, which has so far dominated foreign policy in the United States, really succeeded? Has it gotten us what we wanted or should we now explore an alternative paradigm?
Knowledge Without Borders™: Nearly twenty-five percent of the world’s people are Muslim. What might be the major impact of Islam on 21st century global politics and economic relations?
Ahmed: It is crucial for the world to come to terms with Islam. If one of every four people in the world will soon be Muslim and we are without understanding of each other’s religion and culture, then the clash of cultures thesis will win out. The effect will be devastating and the conflict will be perpetual. We cannot afford to let this happen.
The 21st century will be the century of Islam. The importance of understanding the Muslim world should be evident; there are 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide, 7 million in the United States, 57 Muslims states, at least one with nuclear capabilities. There are American troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries with Muslim populations. The United States’ most important allies in the war on terror are Muslim nations. If the Muslim population is indeed growing as fast as we believe, then the relationship between the West and the Muslim world will grow more and more intimate. The United States must stay true to the ideals that have made it a superpower-democracy, justice and compassion. If these ideals are emphasized, then the relationship with the large Muslim population will grow to mutual respect.
Muslims must also rediscover their ideals-ilm, knowledge, ihsan, balance and compassion and adl, justice. We must remind our young of the saying of the prophet of Islam, “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”
If we are able to find the common ground between the faiths, learn about each others and work together on issues such as terrorism, global warming, genuine democracy in the Muslim world, etc. then we may be able to avert a clash of cultures.