Dr Akbar Ahmed Shares Prize for Interfaith Dialogues
By Matt Getty

School of International Service (SIS) Professor Akbar Ahmed and Judea Pearl, the father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, have won a $100,000 Purpose Prize. The new award, created by Civic Ventures, a think tank supporting social innovation, recognized Ahmed and Pearl’s ongoing Muslim-Jewish interfaith dialogues.
Since 2003, their program, titled “Daniel Pearl Dialogue for Muslim-Jewish Understanding Featuring Akbar Ahmed and Judea Pearl,” has brought Ahmed and Pearl ’s candid conversations on faith, culture, violence, and tolerance to 12 cities in the United States, Canada , and England . Both Jewish and Muslim leaders have praised the program for helping bring together Pakistani and Israeli dignitaries. Sources as disparate as the popular Muslim magazine Emel and the chief UK rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, have praised Ahmed’s contribution. Sacks called him “a role model of supreme grace and dignity.”
“Initially, it was just two people talking, but now it is much more than that,” Ahmed said of the dialogues, adding that in Toronto the Pakistani ambassador invited Judea Pearl and other Jewish leaders to dine with him and extend the cultural exchange beyond the formal event. “People respond to it in a very personal way,” Ahmed said. “They can see that there’s no agenda there. They see that it’s spontaneous and therefore
honest . . . It gives people hope.”
Ahmed, who holds American University’s Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, hopes to use his portion of the prize to build on his mission of promoting peace and exchange between Islam and the West. “I want to create a group of younger people to carry on this momentum,” he said. “It can’t be a one-man job.”
He got a start on that last spring when he took his interfaith dialogues to Pakistan for the first time in eight years, bringing with him AU sophomore Frankie Martin and freshman Hailey Woldt. “It was amazing to see how friendly and open everyone was,” said Martin about the trip. In one instance, he recalled meeting young Muslim men praying for terrorist attacks on US citizens. After they’d talked for a while, he explained, they had a new attitude toward America and called Martin a friend.
“This is how change happens,” said Ahmed.
Though he called the Purpose Prize a “huge personal honor,” Ahmed is more impressed with its symbolic value. “To give this award to a Muslim reflects very positively on America,” he said. “It will make my work much easier when I go out and talk to people who feel that Islam is under attack by the West.”
As his next step in that work, Ahmed plans to travel to Pakistan with Pearl . “I’m going to take Judea Pearl to Karachi,” he said, calling the trip a “psychological hurdle” they must cross to one day build a Daniel Pearl Center for Understanding Between the West and Islam in the city where Daniel Pearl was killed.
Civic Ventures created the Purpose Prize to recognize individuals over 60 and “help society achieve the greatest return on experience.” Five others, ranging in age from 61 to 75, also earned the award. Though Ahmed, at 63, sees much of his work still ahead of him, he’s already focusing on what the award will help him leave behind. “If I can pass on some of my experience and see that the next generation is ready to carry on this work, then I’m OK,” he said. “Otherwise it’s just restricted to me alone.”


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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