Akbar Ahmed on American Muslims
By Online Editor
A U.S. Catholic interview
Akbar Ahmed has written a book of poetry and traveled the world as an anthropologist, but perhaps his most fitting title is ambassador. The former Pakistani ambassador to England, Ahmed has lived his life between cultures.
Growing up in Pakistan, he had great respect for the Catholic priests who educated him. As a young administrator in Waziristan, Pakistan, however, Ahmed also witnessed the ascent of literalist Islam.
When he came to the United States in 2000, Ahmed recognized that Americans knew nothing of that world. He landed at American University in Washington in August 2001 — “divine providence,” the interfaith leaders he works with tell him.
“From 9/11 on — and I am not exaggerating — I haven’t had one 24-hour period when I’ve not been on TV, radio, talking to students, in the White House or the Pentagon, trying to close the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims,” he says.
For Journey into America, Ahmed and five research assistants visited 75 communities and 100 mosques to explore the place of Islam in America. Though fear rooted in ignorance can be found both in Pakistan and the United States, Ahmed is confident that it can be countered with dialogue and education. “We need to be able to honestly explain, read about, interact with, travel to this culture called Islam in order to understand it and thereby build bridges,” Ahmed says.
What does Islam look like in America?
The United States is one of the most fascinating countries in the world for the Muslim community. Islam is a global religion with communities in Brazil, Japan, and the most unlikely places, but the most fascinating community is in the United States of America for one big reason: its variety.
American Muslims are a tiny minority, about 7 million people or 2 percent of the population, and the community covers every kind of Muslim. On our year-long journey, I met Cambodian Muslims, white and Latino converts to Islam, Arabs and Pakistanis. The whole world is here.
About one-third — maybe even half — of the US Muslim population is African American. What is fascinating about them is that even though they aren’t part of the mainstream American story, they are, in fact, as American in their narrative as WASPs or Catholic or Jewish immigrants.
When I asked about their conversion to Islam, many said, “We are not converting to Islam; we are reverting to Islam.” They explained that 40 to 50 percent of the slaves brought from Africa on those terrible death ships were Muslim. I later double-checked this, and if you look at the map of Africa, where these ships landed, and the type of people they picked up, most of these tribes even today are Muslim. It’s logical that in many cases the slaves would have been Muslim.
This huge population, which is American and which is Muslim, today could be the best ambassadors for America to Islam and for Islam to America.
What about immigrant Muslims?
The immigrants coming to the United States from the 1970s onward were highly educated professionals: professors and doctors and engineers and entrepreneurs. They are modernists — people who say, “We are living in America, and we live by the rules of America. We’re proud of being Muslim, and yet we can play baseball and dress like Americans.”
They didn’t have any problems at first. You don’t ask your doctor, “When did you come here? Are you here legally?” You have a doctor-patient relationship with him.
Then on 9/11 every American suddenly became aware of Islam. The same doctor now became an object of suspicion. People suddenly wanted to ask, “Aren’t you from Egypt or Pakistan? Don’t you guys train terrorists?”
I was coming from England where there already was a debate about Islam, but these American Muslim immigrants didn’t see it coming. They have huge houses and Mercedes, and they’re all living the American dream, saying, “This is the most wonderful country in the world.” Their lifestyles are almost dangerous because they are so isolated from the wider community—eating Pakistani food or Egyptian food and speaking in their own language.
I first saw this in New Orleans in 1997 when I gave the keynote address to the Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America. After the talk we were on a boat, the Mississippi Queen, when I heard the azan, the call to prayer.
I came onto the main deck, and I saw a sight that both excited and scared me. The visual impact of 30 or 40 Muslims in traditional dress praying in unison excited me, and I thought, “My God, look at this, how wonderful. Muslims are totally integrated as part of American society.”
But it scared me because I knew something of American history and race relations. Every group, including the Catholics and the Jews, waited a long time to be accepted. These Muslims were simply bypassing all this.
So when 9/11 happened, I knew how disconnected the Muslim immigrant community was and how little Americans knew about it. Ten years later the gap has never been greater.
Will Muslims eventually be accepted as Americans just as Catholics have generally been accepted?
There are real differences that will make it harder for Muslims to be accepted. First, Catholics are part of the Christian tradition. They have an organic relationship with Protestants, even if there are disagreements. Culturally they are similar. European Catholics are white from an outsider’s perspective, and as an anthropologist I very quickly discovered the importance of color in the United States.
It took Catholics more than 100 years before they were accepted, until John F. Kennedy was elected president, and the stories are horrifying — churches were burned, Catholics were lynched. But an outsider would see no difference between Protestants and Catholics today.
When I traveled throughout America, people constantly asked me, “Can a Muslim really be an American?” They were challenging the capacity of the doctor who came decades ago to be an American. It’s going to take a long time for Muslims to be fully part of America.
What is preventing Muslims from becoming part of the United States?
We have a double failure. Americans simplify Islam, reducing it to a caricature, and Muslims fail to explain it.When I talk to Muslim leaders, I say, “Americans want to know about shariah (Islamic law), polygamy, jihad, attitudes to Jews and Christians. Have you answered them?” They just keep saying, “Islam is a religion of peace.”
We haven’t provided good enough answers. The diversity of the community also creates problems because leadership is divided and uncertain about which way to go.
Apart from the fact that 7 million American citizens are Muslim, it is in America’s interest to have good relations with the Muslim world. We have tens of thousands of troops in the Muslim world. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and General David Petraeus constantly talk about winning hearts and minds, but unless you understand the Muslim world, you’re not going to win hearts and minds.
(This article appeared in the May 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine (Vol. 76, No. 5, pages 28-32).