An Evening of Hope
By Jonathan Hayden


Dr Akbar Ahmed
(second from left) at the award ceremony

Late at night in the bitterly cold winter of 1943, with many of the 900 soldiers on board asleep, a torpedo pierced the midsection of the USS Dorchester starting the quick-sink off the coast of Greenland. In the panic to save their own lives, soldiers scurried to try to find lifejackets. The four chaplains, of different faiths, that were on board began passing out the lifejackets, saving lives. When they reached the bottom of the stack they wasted no time in taking off their own and passing them out. These soldiers were their flock. They would die for them. Just before the boat finally sank, soldiers are said to have seen the four chaplains huddled, on the verge of certain death, praying together to the same God.
It was in this spirit, in the memory of these four chaplains, that The Chapel of Four Chaplains was established. The Chapel promotes interfaith dialogue and understanding. The Chapel’s highest honor, the Humanitarian Award, is given annually to the individual who best exhibits the spirit of the Chapel Friends and colleagues gathered to be witness to the 2005 Humanitarian Award presentation on April 19, when the Chapel honored Dr. Akbar Ahmed with the Award. The Kay Spiritual Center on campus at American University was packed with many distinguished guests gathered to honor Dr. Ahmed for his work in interfaith dialogue.
Diplomats, Ambassadors, business and religious leaders were gathered to celebrate a man who has spent his career bringing these types of people from different faiths together in harmony. Foreign Secretary Shafi Sami of Bangladesh who flew in the night before from Dacca, and Ambassador Aziz Mekouar of Morocco opened the ceremony by remarking on their respect for Dr. Ahmed’s work. Sami said that he was a close friend of Dr. Ahmed for four decades since the time they joined the elite civil service cadre and saw the “compassion with which Dr. Ahmed dealt with people”.
Rabbi Cohen, Executive Director of AU Hillel, then informed the distinguished guests of the work that Dr. Ahmed is doing, noting that he is a scholar, diplomat, teacher, humanitarian and more. He said, “His influence spreads through the voices and work of his devoted disciples, of whom I consider myself one”. Reflecting on the theme of the panel, Cohen spoke of the common roots of the Abrahamic faiths. “At their worst, they represent insularity, and bigotry. When they do, the terms Christian, Muslim and Jew are just the names of tribes. At their best they offer the best hope for all of humanity”, said Cohen. He concluded by calling on the individual saying, “Angry people have an angry god. Loving people will have a loving god. Which is the authentic Christianity, Judaism or Islam? We can find texts to justify whatever it is we were predisposed to believe.”
Rabbi Cohen’s stirring speech was marked by the repetition of a quote from ancient Hebrew text, “It is not for one man to finish the work, but neither are we free to neglect it”. He added, “Each of us has a role and a sacred task.” Dr. Akbar Ahmed has not finished the job, but he sure hasn’t neglected it.
Following Rabbi Cohen, University Chaplain Mark Schaefer continued on this theme. He spoke of the covenant between man and God and the need for us to find the collective similarities between the faiths and form a covenant with each other. “The covenants we have with God are only made sensible when we recognize the covenants we have with one another”, Schaefer said. “Perhaps God is calling us to be a covenant of people far more broadly than we had envisioned.” Of the honoree, he remarked, “Dr. Ahmed has challenged us to reevaluate our faith. Our faith is dead if we do not reach out to others.”
Before introducing the award presenter, Panel moderator Joe Eldridge told the audience of Dr. Ahmed’s accomplishments adding he was “the right man in thee right place at the right time”, referring to Dr. Ahmed coming to Washington D.C. one month before September 11. He noted that Dr. Ahmed has been called “The new Ibn Khaldun”. Dr. Ahmed has educated many about Islam including Prince Charles and President Bush.
Fred Honigman, Co-Chairman of the Chapel’s Board of Directors, was present to give the award to Dr. Ahmed. He explained the significance of the award before handing it over. The audience, moved by the proceedings, gave a standing ovation to Dr. Ahmed.
Ahmed confessed to the assembly that he was speechless, noting that this kindness and love was typical of the people on the panel. Once the emotion subsided, Ahmed said that we must “remind ourselves that God is compassionate and merciful”.
It was Rabbi Cohen who initiated the award ceremony when he quietly nominated Dr. Ahmed for this prestigious award. This was on of the most remarkable elements of the evening. Where else would you see a Rabbi call for an Islamic scholar to be given such a high award? This award has been given to Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Carter and Reagan. Bob Hope and John Glenn have received the award. We, who were fortunate enough to participate in the event, saw in action the result of friendships that have developed from people of different faiths coming together to try to find something in common within their respective faiths. Imagine if this type of friendship could inspire others to do the same – find some commonalities between the faiths and embrace them, hold onto them for dear life.
Ahmed then went on to tell the gathering of his personal mission since 9/11: to build bridges between the faiths and use the similarities as a means for peace in the world. He repeated the refrain of the prior speakers: that we share something stronger than that which divides us. “Though there is much warmth and friendship here this evening, there is also much fear and hatred in the world. We cannot be discouraged. The greatness of the Abrahamic faiths lies in compassion and unity.”
Dr. Ahmed thanked all of the celebrated guests that came for the presentation. He left everyone on a cheerful note by reminding that the Abrahamic story is full of hope. At he end of the story, “Abraham brings his sons together in reconciliation”. Following the award ceremony and panel discussion, Dr. Ahmed and Dr. Brian Forst treated attendees to the launch of their book and a signing session. The two have collaborated to edit After Terror: Promoting Dialogue Among Civilizations. The book is a collection of essays by the world’s most renowned scholars, political and religious leaders offering an alternative to the “clash of civilizations” theory that has been widely accepted. The book includes essays by the likes of Queen Noor of Jordan, Kofi Annan, President Mohamed Khatami, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Tamara Sonn, Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Bernard Lewis and Walter Isaacson among others.
In the almost four years since September 11, I have experienced a myriad of emotions. I have been saddened, embarrassed, angered. The list goes on. But I have too rarely been proud. On April 19th, I was proud. Proud of the work that Dr. Akbar Ahmed is doing. Proud of the gesture that my fellow Americans were showing in the honoring of Dr. Ahmed with the Humanitarian Award. Proud that for a least one day, that Muslims in attendance got to see the face of America that is generous and compassionate, warm and inviting, instead of the face of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Who do we think about when we think of Islam?
What picture comes to mind? How about followers of Judaism and Christianity? I believe that for this evening the faces of Islam, Judaism and Christianity were well represented and left an aroma of love and compassion in the Kay Spiritual center. The media is inclined to project the negative. This is one of the challenges that we have been confronted with since September 11. It is important for the world to see that efforts are being made from all sides. Perhaps the most important byproduct of 9/11 is challenge to humanity to think about our differences, find a way to connect and embrace each other. Dr. Ahmed often speaks of finding common ground and bringing people together under these similarities. On this evening, the common ground was Dr. Ahmed.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.