“Journey into Islam” Launched at Prestigious Institutions
By Craig Considine
Washington, DC

 

Launching of ‘Journey into Islam’ at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute. Professor Akbar Ahmed is seen seated second from left

To say that the tumultuous relationship between the West and the Muslim world needs an injection of enlightenment is an understatement. The War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise to power of Islamic fundamentalists in Sudan, and the ethnic conflict in Chechnya are just a few examples of the rise in global tensions surrounding the Muslim community and the uncertain role of the United States as a part of the solution, or part of the problem.
World leaders must take a step back from the political spectrum of international affairs and make the necessary anthropological and sociological investigation into misunderstood areas to search for understanding and common ground. The US in particular needs daring individuals to exhibit the courage and patience to carefully and clearly hear the ordinary voices of the Muslims world and to directly and honestly witness their anger and frustration. This journey and these human emotions were experienced by Professor Akbar Ahmed as he and his team of young Americans commenced their journey into the heart of Islam.
Journey Into Islam is a new book published by the Brookings Institution Press about a unique expedition to nine different nations in the Middle East, South Asia and into Southeast Asia. Two leading Washington DC institutions recently invited Ahmed to launch his new book and to anchor panel discussions with overflowing crowds. On two separate but related events at the Brookings Institute and at the Washington National Cathedral, prominent leaders throughout the community attended Ahmed’s launch and emerged with an enlightened sense of truth, compassion and hope after coming to better understand the worldwide Muslim community.
Ahmed was joined at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute by Ambassadors, Congressman, professors, businessmen and young Americans. At the outset of his journey, Ahmed realized that the best ambassador for the US is the young generation because they hold the keys to a peaceful future. The large and vibrant group of attendees engaged in an enthusiastic dialogue regarding the past and present relationship between the West and Islam.
Steve Grand, the Director of the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, moderated the session. He praised Ahmed for “taking us on a fascinating and exceedingly educational tour of the Muslim World”. Grand said the book is “an usual, compelling…comprehensive book”. After his introductions, Grand gave way to the distinguished panel.
Congressman Keith Ellison’s appearance at the launch of this book was particularly noteworthy as he is the first Muslim congressman ever elected to serve on Capitol Hill. Ellison thanked Ahmed “for your excellent book and your work to advance human knowledge and understanding. A very important, a very timely work, and I applaud you for it.” In commenting on his reflections of the book, Ellison agreed with Ahmed that the Muslim world feels vulnerable but that American Muslims are pleased with the US society and for their future in their country.
Ahmed’s insightful suggestions for new policy initiatives and his team’s rejection of all previous stereotypes about the Muslim world were encouraging words for Dr. Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. Cohen lauded the method of the study and called the result “the ultimate journey or road book” adding that the book really penetrates to…the core of the civilization, a very complex civilization”. For Cohen, Ahmed’s anthropological journey should be the norm rather than the exception when trying to better understand a culture that is not American. He concluded that Ahmed’s book should be read by all US policy makers and that anthropological studies should play more of a role in analyzing the Muslim world.
The third and final member of this event that was lucky enough to experience the breakthrough that Ahmed has encountered for US policy makers was His Excellency Ambassador Aziz Mekouar of Morocco. Ambassador Mekouar felt extremely encouraged by Ahmed’s findings and believes that the book itself is extremely interesting for American citizens because “it goes against all the negative stereotypes that have run rampant regarding Muslims in the post 9-11 era.” His Excellency spoke of his friendship with Ahmed saying, “We have known each other for five years since I arrived here and I immediately appealed [his] thoughts in what he writes.”
In dealing with international affairs surrounding the Muslim world on a daily basis, His Excellency believes that this book is the best approach to understanding the feelings of Muslims worldwide. He concluded his thoughts by praising Ahmed for opening an important avenue of bridge building and that the book has created a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. It is now simply our obligation to cross it.
The events that unfolded at Brookings could play a role in revolutionizing policy ideas when the US deals with the Muslim world in the future. In contrast to the discussion at the Brookings Institution that focused on policy and international relations, the Washington National Cathedral held a book launch focused on more spiritual matters. The contrast between these two events was evident but the similarities were still clear. Just as it was at Brookings, this discussion was filled with hope for a peaceful future between the West and Islam. Joining Ahmed were his two good friends, Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation and Bishop John Chane of the Washington National Cathedral and moderator Reverend Canon John L. Peterson from the Center of Global Justice and Reconciliation at the Cathedral. Over the years, these three figures have represented their own faiths in public interfaith dialogues but have also built an extremely tight bond together that serves as an inspiration for all.
Canon Peterson’s opening comments about Ahmed’s books gave evidence to the timely manner of the release of Journey into Islam. Peterson stated that the book gives a “fresh perspective of the misunderstood religion of Islam.” To Peterson, Ahmed’s voice in the book is gentle, calm and is filled with wisdom and hope. In this imbalanced world where globalization has created a much smaller and faster paced world, the book gives a vision of a global community where all humans can engage in dialogue to solve their discrepancies.
Ahmed’s latest book serves as an idea for other Americans to do what Ahmed has done: search for understanding other cultures rather than colliding with them on a consistent basis. Rabbi Lustig believes that Ahmed, who he called “a brilliant anthropologist and my teacher and friend”, has written a “fascinating” book that is a “valuable tool to shorten the distance between the West and the Muslim community.” If we do not break the barriers between the West and the Muslim community, Lustig believes that people will continue to live in fear and will continuously worry about the future of their children.
The sense of a true bond in friendship between Ahmed, Lustig and Chane was evident as they joked with one another throughout the night. When the Bishop began speaking, it was obvious that both Ahmed and Lustig truly appreciated and understood his meaningful words of wisdom. To Chane, Journey Into Islam offers hope and peace to members of the Abrahamic tradition in their broken relationship. For Chane, Ahmed’s book is a “powerful statement about hope for the future”. He concluded by stating that “all people must accept the book because it serves as a gift to learn about the Muslim world in an unprecedented manner.”
At the outset of both of these magnificent and inspiring events, several common themes emerged. The most important theme that was felt by each and every panelist after reading Ahmed’s book was the great sense of responsibility to engage with the Muslim world in search for understanding and knowledge. The second theme was the true power of a Muslim, Jew and Christian coming together in peace in the National Cathedral for Christians to flirt with the idea of religious tolerance, compassion, and more importantly, peace.
Also present at both events were Ahmed’s team of young Americans who traveled with them. At the National Cathedral, Frankie Martin, Hailey Woldt and Jonathan Hayden were asked to come onto the stage to enthusiastic applause. Ms. Woldt, on behalf of the entire team which also included Hadia Mubarak, thanked Ahmed for being “a father and friend to each one of us”.
On a touching note, two of the parents of members of Professor Ahmed’s team were able to listen to these three religious figures discuss the idea of coexistence. Mrs. Zuckerman, mother of a member of Ahmed’s team Lauren, was literally moved to tears, like many others in the audience, due to the power and the scale of the event. Never before has she ever listened to such powerful figures discuss ideas like peace and hope. Terry Woldt, on the other hand, was the father of Hailey Woldt, a research assistant that journeyed with Ahmed and featured in the book. Terry was awestruck at the thought that young Americans and students of Ahmed have the ability to change the world as we know it. Ahmed’s book is one that touches the heart of every human soul, regardless of affiliation. It forces one to search their soul of compassion and truth. When one is finished with the book, he is almost certainly to feel enlightened at the thought that compassion and friendship, rather than guns and bombs, can solve the problems of the world.

 

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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