Scholars and Academics Call for Interfaith Harmony
By Dr. Amineh Ahmed Hoti

Cambridge, UK: About one hundred people from diverse cultural, social, and religious backgrounds gathered on December 18 in Cambridge to engage in dialogue and positive interaction in a post-9/11 and post-7/7 context. The event brought together eminent political and religious leaders, scholars, businessmen and students from America, Iran, Pakistan, India, Taiwan, France, and various cities of the UK. Some important figures in the interfaith dialogue such as Dr. Edward Kessler and Dr. Maleeha Lodhi were unable to attend as they were away from the country due to the Christmas break.
Among the distinguished guests were Professor David Ford, former Pakistan High Commissioner Wajid Shamshul Hassan, Humayun Mughal, the editors of Emel Magazine, Britain’s leading Muslim Magazine, Raja Khan of Raj TV, and distinguished senior photographer Shahid Ahmed. The dialogue seminar was organized by the Society for Dialogue and Action (D&A) and held over a South Asian meal hosted by Mr. Mohsin Akhtar at his stately Heydon Grange Golf Course. D&A held the interfaith event in honour of its founder Professor Akbar Ahmed who has played a key role in promoting interfaith dialogue over the last two decades both in the UK and more recently in the USA where he is Professor of International Relations at Washington DC.
Imam Sajjid, a promoter of interfaith dialogue among Jews and Muslims, opened the session. He pointed out that he had accompanied Professor Ahmed to many important interfaith events over the last two decades. This was followed by my introduction as the Executive Director of D&A. I mentioned the significance of the Society’s role in bridging the gap between the community and academic, including women and young people in interfaith dialogue. Various individuals and schools who had responded with warm clothing and tents to the South Asian Earthquake Appeal were acknowledged. The tragedy of the South Asian earthquake has generated much goodwill across religious and cultural boundaries. For example, the British Jewry alone raised a substantial fund for relief in Pakistan, and by doing so indicated empathy towards the Muslim community. It is this positive contact on a human level that we also need to focus on, which in turn will increase mutual goodwill among various communities.
The MP of Cambridge, Mr. David Howarth, who has been a great supporter of the Society, said in his speech: “All human problems are a problem of communicating between people of different ideas, different backgrounds and different faiths and if we can communicate with one another and if we can understand one another’s ideas and different approaches then even if we do not agree with one another at least we recognize one another as fellow human beings who can get on as friends.”
Professor Julius Lipner, a distinguished scholar and the Head of the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, introduced the chief guest, Professor Akbar Ahmed, describing him as “a very courageous man with a glittering career; he is a scholar, teacher, prolific thinker, and one of the best-known commentators internationally on contemporary Islam in the media; and after 9/11, in the American situation, a distinguished Muslim who has acquired another talent of walking certain tightropes with great success. He is much appreciated in the world and has received a galaxy of awards and other forms of recognition for his tremendous desire to bring people together in very difficult situations with great clarity and insight”. Professor Lipner talked about D&A’s importance in the constructive application of scholarship, to build bridges to create dialogue and understanding, and to celebrate difference. Martin Bell, a famous journalist and Member of Parliament, who declared himself “a disciple of Akbar’s” message and work said that it was necessary to support such interfaith work now more than ever.
One of the main founders of D&A and key-note speaker, Professor Akbar Ahmed, said: “It is important that we support the endeavour started by Amineh and Arsallah, we support dialogue, we support particularly the young and the female because in the Muslim world too often neither the young nor the females have a voice. It is important because Islam is a global civilization and we need to be able to engage with it through dialogue, understanding and friendship. If that does not happen then the possibility of violence, of terrorism, of conflict exists all around us.” Sharing his own work on interfaith dialogue in the US, Professor Akbar Ahmed said that after 9/11, there is much misunderstanding and in the despair and sometimes negative atmosphere “we often overlook the positive, and the tremendous opportunity that has opened up for dialogue and this is what we need to focus on.”
Drawing on personal experience and insight, Professor Ahmed shared with the participants of the seminar the initiative of setting up the first Abrahamic summit with his friends, The senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig and The Bishop of Washington DC John Chane at the National Cathedral (which has picked up momentum in the media). At the Cathedral on February 20th among seven hundred people an Evensong was dedicated for the first time ever to a Muslim scholar - Professor Ahmed. The founder of D&A urged Jews, Christians and Muslims to take up the path of dialogue with each other; dialogue was urged not only among the Abrahamic communities but also more widely: Professor Ahmed has encouraged dialogue among Hindus and Muslims for which he was given the Gandhi Centre Peace Award in DC. Finally, we heard about the series of dialogues with Judea Pearl, the father of Danny Pearl. “This was a difficult dialogue,” said Professor Ahmed, “because I was aware that when I sat on stage with Judea I would be a symbolic Muslim for this heinous act. Yet this unlikely dialogue between two very different people from very different parts of the world was received very positively.”
The participants of the seminar who had read about these events were keen to hear more details about the visit of the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, and Lady Sacks, to the house of Professor Akbar Ahmed in Washington DC; Professor Ahmed talked about his talk at the Pentagon at the General Myers Chairman’s Distinguished Speaker Series delivered to four hundred officers. These are all part of the initiative of dialogue, bridge-building and encouraging understanding. The key message was that “Dialogue must lead to understanding because we often live isolated lives, finally this must lead to friendship.” Professor Ahmed pointed out that dialogue without understanding and friendship was incomplete. Most significantly he said that dialogue was the most important way forward for the future of our children.
Professor Julius Lipner presented a copy of his important new book, Anandamath or The Sacred Brotherhood (2005) to Professor Ahmed. In it he inscribed: “In friendship and in recognition of your lasting contribution to inter-religious understanding.” Sheikh Dr. Mahbood, Director of the Islamic Academy of Cambridge, congratulated the Society and promised it full support.
The dialogue was very well received by all the participants which was so appropriate in this great University city of scholars, visionaries, and poets. As a British Indian participant of Hindu background said: “Although I am from Delhi I had a negative impression of Islam but after hearing this dialogue I am so encouraged to reach out that I will buy a copy of the Qur’an so that I can understand Islam better.” A leading Muslim doctor said: “Why don’t we have more of these dialogues with non-Muslims as these dialogues are the only hope for the future.”
As the Executive Director of the Society for Dialogue and Action, I was delighted that this dialogue at different levels involving different generations and communities was flourishing as a result of this extraordinary gathering.
(Dr. Amineh Ahmed Hoti
Society for Dialogue and Action
At Lucy Cavendish Cavendish College
Cambridge University