Reflections of a Concerned Young American
By Craig Considine
American University
Washington, DC

Prof. Akbar Ahmed

For the past year, I have had the privilege of working for Professor Akbar Ahmed and the experiences gained in this role have been a revelation that has sown the seeds of future hope. The clash between the West and Islam is not one between civilizations, but one that surrounds all of humanity. We as human beings must come to better understand each other through compassion, tolerance, and dialogue. Without these three universal values permeating the conscious of both great civilizations, we will be in for a dangerous, uncertain future.
Some have already begun the fight against ignorance and misunderstanding surrounding Islam, but citizens who continue to malign Islam without truly understanding the religion seem to be the rule, not the exception, these days. There are roughly seven million Muslims living in the United States today. It is crucial that US citizens learn to live and coexist with US Muslims. The US was created by Europeans who had escaped religious persecution, but we have unfortunately forgotten this over time.
Professor Ahmed recently sponsored a visit to the Islamic Centre on Massachusetts Ave. in Washington, D.C. for his “World of Islam” class at American University and helped his students begin the complex discovery process that is necessary to better understand Islam. The class is made up of students from a wide range of backgrounds, and was the first trip for many to a mosque.
One particular attendee at the Centre was Rama Coimbatore, a South Indian from Asia that has spent the last seven months working as Dr. Ahmed’s teaching assistant. To Mr. Coimbatore, this event was a “Herculean task” because it was the first time that many of these students have ever attended a mosque, let alone the Islamic Centre; it stands as the most prestigious mosque in the United States. Mr. Coimbatore notes that this visit would not have come to fruition if it were not for Dr. Ahmed’s persistent efforts. He also noted that “the experience of being in a mosque, watching people pray and the pleasure of interacting with the Imam will remain etched permanently in my heart.” For Mr. Coimbatore, the door to knowledge is now open and it is now up to him, and others like him, to take the next step to propagate that knowledge.
Many US citizens refuse to interact with Muslims because of stereotypes that they have been surreptitiously taught and cultivated. This trip taught students that Islam is a religion of peace, not war. In interacting directly with the Imam, these students learned about universal values such as compassion and tolerance from one of the most eminent religious figures in the nation. Hearing these words come from the leader of an Islamic community was important to them because it counters the current perception that Muslims follow an intolerant religion. Islamic fanatics are not practicing the true meaning of Islam as outlined in the Holy Qur’an. The goal of these fanatics is the antithesis of the Qur’an as they seek to hijack Islam in order to promote self-serving radicalism that imperils humanity.
It is a challenge for young Americans like the students who attended the trip, to spread what they learned so that future generations of the human race can live in harmony. If my generation is to spark a renaissance in the way people of one culture interact with people of another culture, we must live up to our duty to spread what we learn. If these young Americans can teach to their families, their peers, and their elders everything they learned about true Islam, their experience can be multiplied, and ignorance defeated. We must accept this challenge because understanding Islam will be one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. The best way to approach the challenge is through the quest for knowledge because today’s global ethnic and religious tenets know few jurisdictional boundaries.
Knowledge of Islam can help build bridges that enable individuals to cross between their respective worlds in peace. Georgetown University hosted at the Intercultural Center where The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs welcomed Professor Ahmed’s most recent film “The Glories of Islamic Art.” In the film, Professor Ahmed tells us that the search for knowledge, or ilm, is the first step for US citizens to create more of a harmonious relationship between Muslims and Americans, and in many cases between US citizens and US Muslims. Before the events of September 11th many Americans were unfamiliar with the Islamic world and Islamic culture. After September 11th many Americans began to stereotype all Muslims as terrorists, radicals, and people who hated the US and the values we stand for.
Professor Ahmed’s film takes us on a journey through the Islamic world to share the beauty and sophistication of Islamic art in Istanbul, Cairo and Damascus in an effort to show not only US citizens and westerners, but also Muslims that Islam is an important and historic culture that was once at the core of the leading civilization in the entire world. To Professor Ahmed, religion and culture are inseparable. This can best be exemplified in the art and architecture that he analyzes and examines in the film. Professor Ahmed believes that art can give people a visual representation of a religion and that appreciating art can promote inter-religious understanding.
The screening of the film was followed up by a panel discussion between Professor Ahmed, Leon Harris, who is the lead anchor in Washington, DC on ABC 7 news, and Jon Voll, a professor of Islamic history and director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. The Ambassador from Bangladesh, His Excellency Shamsher Chowdhury, also gave brief introductory remarks regarding his thoughts on Dr. Ahmed’s film and the chance for peace in the contemporary world.
Ambassador Chowdhury emphasized the importance of understanding each other as human beings. In highlighting the beauty of art, he thanked Ahmed for showing that Islam is indeed a tolerant religion which accepts and acknowledges other members of the Abrahamic tradition. Ambassador Chowdhury also stated that interfaith dialogue can only come if the people who are involved have faith that peace can be accomplished and sustained. The Ambassador praised Ahmed for his devotion to interfaith dialogue, “for me Akbar Ahmed is a role model and has initiated the path to interfaith dialogue”. He concluded by stating that “it is important to understand that we can transcend mental and emotional boundaries by seeing each other through the light of art.”
Professor Jon Voll also emphasized the power and ability for people to better understand each other by examining art from other cultures. The Islamic heritage, as Voll noted, is the kind of imagery that is needed to bring peace to the world. In better understanding the art and architecture of the Muslim world, westerners and US citizens alike can stray away from old stereotypes and reconstruct their views of Islam in the light that Professor Ahmed portrayed. “I have been watching Akbar for the past decades walk on the lonely path of helping us understand Islam with his books, films and lectures”, Voll said, ‘”we are all with him.”
Leon Harris was the final speaker of the panel discussion. Harris believes that the best way to build bridges is by reaching out to try and understand other cultures. Harris said that “we fear that which is unfamiliar” and that “art can lower barriers.” To Harris, the most important challenge facing the US and Muslims is that people must drop all of their concerns and engage with other cultures because letting go of this stereotypical fear is how real peace is achieved.
The Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC allowed Dr. Ahmed to showcase his forthcoming book, Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization. This conference raised personal concerns with me regarding the latest developments involving how US citizens view Muslims around the world and in the United States. Perhaps the most shocking and overwhelming problem encountered was the lack of knowledge and ignorance that these conference participants had about Islam and Muslims as a whole. There were only a few people who understood some aspects of the Islamic faith. More importantly, many people greatly misunderstood Islam and continuously noted that the Qur’an supports violence and that the Prophet Muhammad was a murderer.
The greatest challenge at this conference was to challenge and dismiss these stereotypes. Many people were unwilling to accept that Islam teaches its followers to be compassionate and tolerant. A recurring theme of my experience was that people only focused on the differences that we as citizens or of different religious backgrounds have with Muslims. I told them that Islam has a great deal in common with Judaism and Christianity and that we all have our roots in the Abrahamic tradition.
It was after my experience at CPAC that I realized that even though Professor Ahmed’s team has brought many positive changes and greater understanding to Washington, DC and to the nation, there is still much work to be done. My own personal experience was unique because I am not a Muslim, yet I represented a Muslim organization with respect and honor. This nation needs more people who are willing to interact and represent other cultures on the basis that interfaith dialogue and inter-cultural interaction is the best way to bring understanding to this world. With understanding comes clarity and with clarity comes peace.
President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 Commencement speech at American University is relevant to my point of emphasis that both US citizens and westerners must work to change their attitude towards the Islamic world by engaging with Muslims and by working to better understand their religion and culture.
In talking about world peace, Kennedy said that US citizens must re-examine their own attitudes, as individuals and as a Nation, for “our attitude is as essential as theirs.” I believe that if we change our attitude, so will the radical Muslims. As leaders in this world, it is important for the US to take the lead in bringing about peace to this world. Looking inward, as Kennedy noted, is the only solution to mend the differences in the world. Looking inward forces us to examine our own attitudes towards the possibilities of peace, towards the Muslim world, towards the course of the War on Terror and toward freedom and peace here in the US and abroad.


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