Book Review
Building Bridges of Faith: Answer to Terrorism

By Karamatullah K. Ghori
Canada

After Terror: Promoting Dialogue Among Civilizations
Edited by Akbar Ahmed and Brian Forst
Published, 2005 by Polity Press
65 Bridge Street, Cambridge CB2 1UR, UK
and 350 Main Street, Malden MA 02148, USA
ISBN: 0-7456-3501-6
ISBN: 0-7456-3502-4(pb)
196 Pages.
Price: not given

It doesn’t take the wizardry of a political pundit to conclude that the cataclysm of 9/11 has changed our world like no other contemporary event. The world history may well be recorded, henceforth, in terms of ‘before- and- after 9/11.’

The most notable fallout of the apocalypse is consensus amongst the intellectuals, academics, leaders, opinion makers et al that terrorism is a global phenomenon and a collective challenge to mankind. There is also agreement that the menace must be confronted, and prevailed upon, in order to safeguard our generation and future generations, too from this scourge.

However, there’s a definite parting of the ways between governments and leaders—especially the ones with power and global reach—and men of intellect and vision over the ways of combating the evil. The world’s mightiest military power, with military bases strung across the globe, has chosen to combat terror with terror. The American military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq is categorical evidence of one country arrogating to itself the sole right to punish ‘evil doers’ and even those who had nothing to do, like Iraq, with the tragedy of 9/11.

But the world must be thankful that there is still a hard core of intellectuals and visionaries around who think that force is not the right answer to deal with the scourge of terror. They are not prepared to pander to the prophets of doom who have been prophesying, since long before 9/11, that a clash of civilizations was imminent. They believe, instead, in the alternative means and methods of defusing this global challenge to the collective conscience of mankind.

Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, hailed long time ago as the most notable Muslim anthropologist since the legendary Ibne Khaldoon, is one such intellectual who is not ready to surrender to the neo con option of force against terror. But Akbar is not just an armchair visionary pontificating on the issue from a sinecure sanctuary; he is a foot soldier in the world of academia actively engaged in inter-faith dialogue over a wide spectrum. His dialogue with Judea Pearl, the father of the slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl has electrified the academic world and other public platforms in US and Canada. Akbar is also engaged with Bishop John Chane, head of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC and Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig, head of Washington’s Hebrew Congregation, as founder panelist of the First Abraham Summit launched after 9/11. His bridge-building is protean and versatile.

Together with his colleague, Brian Forst, of the American University, Washington, DC, Akbar has come out with a collection of essays written on the theme of non-violent means of combating terrorism by some of the most celebrated names on our contemporary academic and intellectual horizon. They represent all shades and hues of the global intellectual rainbow. It includes world leaders like President Khatami of Iran, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Prince Hassan bin Talal of the Hshemite Dynasty of Jordan; peace activists and Nobel Peace Prize winners, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jody Williams; renowned historians, writers and political pundits, such as Bernard Lewis, Walter Isaacson and Zbigniew Brezezinski; celebrities like Queen Noor of Jordan, Rajmohan Gandhi and Ravi Shankar; authors and political analysts, such as Joseph Nye Jr., Edward O. Wilson and Benjamin Barber; and international civil servants, such as Sergio Vieira de Mello ( the brilliant Brazilian killed in Baghdad in August 2003 while serving as UN watchdog there) and Shashi Tharoor.

The 28 essays making up the collection comprehensively diagnose the problem of global terrorism from every possible angle. The authors of these essays, writing concisely with a fine-toothed pen, explore all those historical, sociological, political, economic and religious aspects that have spawned the phenomenon of terrorism and confronted humanity with the gravest challenge to the system of civilized interaction amongst sovereign nations crafted over centuries.

The authors of these essays agree, almost unanimously, that religion has been misappropriated for political purposes and honed as a weapon to convey political grievances violently. However, this process is not confined exclusively to this or that part of the world. Contrary to the disinformation purveyed by those subscribing to the fiction of clash of civilizations, politicized religion is not the monopoly of one religion (Islam in the eyes of many) but has become a universal property. The rapid inroads of Evangelism in American politics, as a force to contend with, point to religion being tailored to a specific political agenda.

Intolerance is a major by-product of politicized religiosity. However, Kofi Annan is wrong in concluding that poverty and illiteracy are the main sources of triggering intolerance. Had that been the case, there would be no Evangelists in America damning all other believers of faith to eternal perdition.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is certainly more to the point of objective reality in asserting that religion is not so much the culprit for intolerance as fear, ignorance (of others) and exclusivism is. The Bush administration’s response to the challenge of terrorism is incorrigibly informed by intolerance for other viewpoints. Its alarmist approach to combating terrorism has been inculcating a psychosis of fear in the hearts and minds of the American people.

The collection doesn’t confine itself to only diagnosing the malady; it proposes, in depth, a variety of remedies taking cognizance of the nature of the problem and thoroughly dissecting its strengths and weaknesses before coming up with its cornucopia of stabilizing a highly charged and emotive crisis of confidence.

There is near-consensus in this elaborate intellectual undertaking that the dogmatic aspect of all religions and faiths will have to be de-emphasized in the interest of a harmonious universal community of mankind. A constant dialogue is the best shot at achieving a modicum of universal understanding.

Ironically, Bernard Lewis, the controversial Orientalist regarded as intellectual mentor and guru by many a neo-con in the Bush circle, comes up with, perhaps, the most sensible remedy to bridge the religious divide. He believes, correctly, that what unites the followers of world’s major divine religions is much more than what divides them.

That’s precisely what Akbar Ahmed has been doing in his inter-faith dialogue with Judea Pearl: building bridges to span a divide in the Abrahamic faiths; a divide more a product of ignorance than any other factor.

Former President Jimmy Carter, an outspoken critic of the Bush policy of unilateralism, also highlights the ineluctable need for bridge-building, instead of bridge-burning, in his pithy rubric on the title page of the book.

Benjamin Barber, whose trenchant critique of the Bush global adventurism ( Fear’s Empire) in the name of combating terrorism, was recently reviewed, conjures up the ideal of a universal declaration of interdependence to overcome fissures in the global community. However, that’s an ideal whose time is, perhaps, still far.

Likewise, Prince Hassan’s romantic vision of a universal ‘melting pot’ is equally idealistic. That would not only be impracticable but undesirable. God Almighty didn’t envision a melting pot of mankind. Instead, the Qur’anic injunction is of a universal community, purposely divided into tribes and nations, but commanded to live in peace and harmony with each other: O People! We have formed you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another (Chapter 49:13 ).

As a good Muslim scholar steeped in world history and well informed by current international affairs, Akbar Ahmed knows that in the wake of 9/11 the greatest burden of proving their commitment to a universe of harmonious mankind weighs on the Muslims of the world. Hence his endeavor to promote an inter-faith dialogue among the followers of Abrahamic faiths. This collection of essays is an adjunct to that undertaking.


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