Journey into the UK
By Frankie Martin
Washington, DC

 


From Left to Right, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, MP David Anderson, Jacqui Fogg, and Frankie Martin following a launch for Journey into Islam at the House of Commons. Jacqui Fogg, developer of ‘Understanding Islam,’ an online course from Jones Knowledge that Dr. Ahmed is advising, also spoke of the need to understand the Muslim world

This summer I accompanied Dr. Akbar Ahmed, my favorite professor at American University in Washington DC, on an extraordinary trip to the United Kingdom. In 2006 I had accompanied Dr. Ahmed as a member of a team of young American researchers on a tour of the Muslim world to better learn about the lives of Muslims and explore ways of bridging the growing gap between the West and the Islamic world. The trip took us to nine countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and Far East Asia. We handed out questionnaires and interviewed people from all parts of society, from politicians like Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to students in rural madrassas.
A year later, in London, I was again traveling with Dr. Ahmed, this time promoting the resulting book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, to which I and my fellow researchers had contributed. Discussing Islam in the United States had been difficult after 9/11, but I was beginning to find an audience more willing to consider changes in policy toward the Muslim world: there seemed to be a greater desire to understand the diversity and complexity of Muslim politics, culture, and religion, and a realization that our current path wasn’t working. I expected to find something similar in the UK, and I did, for about a week.
I hadn’t spent much time in London before, so I delighted in exploring the city and seeing the tourist sites. Strolling through Hyde Park one afternoon I was surprised to find myself almost completely surrounded by Muslim families out enjoying a rare sunny afternoon. I saw Pakistani curry restaurants on nearly every corner. It seemed as if Muslims and non-Muslims were coexisting well in this vibrant and diverse international city.
On June 29 I awakened to shocking news. Early that morning police had defused two massive truck bombs near Piccadilly Circus, close to where I was staying. I walked outside to see police cars racing down the street, confused, frightened commuters attempting to find alternative modes of transport, and screaming tabloid headlines from the newspaper stands. If not for the heroic efforts of the police, the newspapers said, hundreds would have died. The next day, a car rammed into Glasgow airport in Scotland in an attempted suicide bombing.
Britain exploded in fury, outrage, and confusion. Quickly the details began to emerge. The suspects being arrested in connection with the attempted bombings were doctors, whose very profession implored them to save lives. These “Doctors of Death,” as the tabloids dubbed them, were not poor, ignorant “Islamists” trained in radical Pakistani madrassas, as the 7/7 bombers had been perceived, but educated, wealthy professionals. How could this have happened in our country, TV newsmen asked from their perch in front of the Glasgow bomber’s suburban home. What turns a brilliant, successful family man into a cold-blooded killer? One suggested answer came up again and again in the media: the religion of Islam.


Dr. Akbar Ahmed addresses the 2007 graduating class at the University of Liverpool, where he received an honorary Doctor of Laws

The discussion in the UK began to resemble that in the US after 9/11. I could feel the same anger and confusion simmering among the British. Familiar questions were asked: Why do they hate us? Is Islam an inherently violent doctrine? Is there a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West? Ambiguous terms used to describe the terrorists and their ideology (jihadis, Islamists, Islamofascists) abounded. It was in this atmosphere that Dr. Ahmed and I attempted to promote a book calling for dialogue between the West and the world of Islam. After the events in Glasgow and London Dr. Ahmed made constant appearances in the media in an attempt to make sense of the week’s events and explain our book to an alarmed public, including the BBC, both radio (Start the Week), and TV (Newsnight), ITN, and Channel 4- where I was privileged to meet anchor Jon Snow. I was interviewed along with Dr. Ahmed on the BBC World Service, which was tremendously exciting as I’d been an ardent listener for many years. The same week, I opened an issue of the Guardian and was thrilled to see that Journey into Islam, a book to which I and our whole team had devoted so much time and energy, was declared “Book of the Week” and given a glowing review. I felt that our message of dialogue was having an impact.
Through media appearances, meetings with journalists, diplomats, religious figures, academics, and university students we were able to interact with a wide range of people in the UK and hear their opinions. Dr. Ahmed and I had dinner with prominent Pakistani doctors in Liverpool, a rare opportunity to see inside a community that was under so much pressure. We also spoke with many politicians, including former Pakistani cricketer and current Pakistani MNA Imran Khan. People had many questions about my trip to the Muslim world, as well as about the United States.
I also got to enjoy the very traditional side of English culture in a visit to Cambridge University, where Dr. Ahmed had gone to school and later taught. The grounds were stunning, a true academic paradise complete with 700 year-old cathedrals, boats, ducks, and grass that I’m convinced couldn’t get any greener. One day following a conference at the university we went for tea at the Orchard in Grantchester on the river Cam. It was a beautiful afternoon, and Dr. Ahmed, his family, and I were joined by top professors at Cambridge and prominent members of both the Muslim and Jewish communities. As we sat chatting in deck chairs under low lying trees, Dr. Ahmed slipped me a brochure describing the history of the Orchard and some of its illustrious patrons. To my surprise I learned that the poet Rupert Brooke, the author Virginia Woolf, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and E. M. Foster, author of A Passage to India — one of my favorite books — all took their tea in the very same spot. As a student of philosophy in school I was excited to learn that Lord Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein debated in the Orchard, as their rivalry helped push both to stratospheric heights in the discipline. Walking along the river Cam, I could think of no place I would rather be.
Dr. Ahmed and I also visited the University of Southampton where we attended a conference on the 60th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence. Dr. Ahmed gave the keynote address about the common bonds between Nehru, Jinnah, and Gandhi and what their example means for South Asia today. Over three days I met with academics from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan; Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim, and was amazed that despite such vast differences in their views of history and partition and the presence so much ill-will among their peoples in the past, everyone was cordial to each other. They were able to sit down and talk about their differences, as were representatives from the other power involved, Britain. I learned much about the history of South Asia going to the seminars and eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the scholars every day.
From Cambridge to London, from Liverpool to Southampton we traveled speaking about our book and its message. Throughout, we linked our conclusions in the field to the current tense situation in Britain. Based on our fieldwork, we had divided the Muslim world into three models: the mystic, universal Sufi model, the modernist model which synthesizes Islam and the West, and the orthodox, traditionalist model. These three had been in play not since 9/11 but since the 19th century when Muslims first confronted sustained European colonization.
In my travels to the Muslim world, I found that people were angry, confused, and frustrated. They feel the religion of Islam is under attack in a war waged by the West. They feel Americans hate Islam and that their religion is being deliberately distorted. When we asked people what the number one threat to the Muslim world was, a strong majority in every country said: "Western negative perceptions of Islam." In this environment, the orthodox traditionalists, which would include groups like the Taliban, are ascendant because they are seen to fight against social injustice and “stand up” for Islam. Only a small number of people in this group are violent, but almost everyone wants to preserve Islam in the face of perceived aggression and injustice. In Karachi, a high school student threw up his hands, and told me in desperation, “There is so much injustice in the world, I don’t know what to do about it.” The modernists, like those in the model of the first Governor General of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, as well as the Sufi mystics are marginalized in part because they seem unable to provide this sense of justice and pride.
We explained that this orthodox model, which was so apparent in our travels, also seems to be gaining ground in the UK. Muslims in the UK are a minority in a Western democracy and often have a difficult time holding on to their culture and religion and at the same time living as modern British citizens. Many are economically disadvantaged. Racism and discrimination abound. When these problems are combined with the perception that the world body of Muslims, or the Ummah, is under global attack from the West it can create a lethal mix.
The seriousness of the challenges facing Islam in the West was confirmed for me at a lecture Dr. Ahmed gave at the London School of Economics. I felt that there was a certain tension, even hostility in the audience, which surprised me because LSE has a reputation for being a liberal institution. The house was absolutely packed; over 200 people had to be turned away. This was an indication of strong interest in the discussion about Islam, although much of the audience came with hostility and skepticism. I was amazed at some of the questions and how directly my professor was confronted, including one man who said he respected Dr. Ahmed’s talk but in the end he believed there could be no co-existence with the Muslims, all had to be converted to Christianity for Britons to live in peace. Many other questions and comments reflected a similar theme. Something would have to be done about the Muslim “problem.” I was familiar with the intensity at which Islam is discussed in the US but the tone of this lecture at one of the UK’s premier universities was surprising.
The subject of the lecture, the three models of Islam we wrote about in Journey into Islam, were coming alive before my very eyes in the UK. One day, Dr. Ahmed asked a British Pakistani cab driver while traveling home from a television interview what he thought of the current situation. He replied that times were very rough. Dr. Ahmed left and we resumed driving. I told him I was in the UK to discuss a book I had completed with Akbar Ahmed and an American team of researchers on understanding Islam. The driver was very surprised to learn that it was Dr. Ahmed that he had just dropped off, and spoke of his admiration for Dr. Ahmed and the work he had done for the Muslim community. With this knowledge, the driver began to see me not as an American visitor but as Dr. Ahmed’s assistant, someone who he could talk to.
As he spoke about the Muslim situation in Britain, his voice grew louder and more passionate. He told me he believed in Britain and its justice system so much he wanted to be a lawyer, but dropped out because the other students were so vicious in their racism. He had been driven to desperation at what he was seeing inside the British Pakistani community. He was torn. He condemned the bombers who had tried to strike the week before, but said they were “misguided” Muslims who needed to be helped. He knew there was a problem because he is active inside the community. He was not about to dismiss the palpable fury of many Muslims Britain was seeing on its television screens as representing only a few “extremists.” He lamented that the Muslims had no leaders, and he named some of his Muslim heroes, including Americans I was sure to know like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. No one these days, he said, has the courage to take the first step in a world of pain and injustice like the Prophet Muhammad once did and exhibit true leadership. When he mentioned Muhammad, I saw his eyes swell with tears, so great was his love and admiration for the Prophet of Islam.
In all, British Muslims seemed to be in a state of shock. This was apparent at a Journey into Islam book launch at the House of Commons attended by MPs including Lord Nazir Ahmed and David Anderson. I was surprised when an audience member disputed a claim in my speech that some Muslims in places like Pakistan had named Osama bin Laden as their role model in our study, saying that they must have been joking. The reality is somewhat different.
There is a considerable amount of anger today in both the Muslim world and in the West, and we need to be doing whatever we can to bring the temperature down. This was our message throughout our trip. Speaking to City Circle, a gathering of prominent Muslim leaders in London at which I had shared my experiences in the Muslim world, Dr. Ahmed called on Muslims to make their voices heard, to get in the media, and join the debate. If they don’t, he warned, they may be negatively spoken for. Muslims have to integrate while explaining where they are coming from, he said. They need to reach out.
To non-Muslims Dr. Ahmed asked to avoid seeing Islam as a monolith and to make efforts to reach out and understand Muslims, including the orthodox traditionalists who are ascendant throughout the Muslim world. Even the most conservative Muslims welcomed me on my trip once I listened to them and made an effort to understand their religion and culture, a fact reaffirmed in the UK. This was message we took to Parliament, where Dr. Ahmed testified at the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Tackling Terrorism, and to the US Embassy, where we met with US Ambassador Robert Tuttle and later over thirty top intelligence, defense, and State Department officials. The Embassy staff was extremely helpful, especially Cultural Affairs officers Jennifer Harris and Michael Macy, who showed us around parts of London and organized several events for us, including this one with top officials serving in the London Embassy, one of the most important in the world.
At the talk one official commented that he had just seen Dr. Ahmed on CNN that morning discussing the standoff at the Red Mosque in Islamabad and was honored that he had come to the Embassy. I felt my American colleagues were responding to the material in our talk in a serious, somber way. It was thrilling to speak to this audience because this was one of the reasons I joined the Journey into Islam project, I wanted to experience the Muslim world so I could assess some of the problems and make suggestions to our government on how the situation could be improved. Here sitting before so many high-ranking officials who were responding very positively to what we had to say, I again felt that we had accomplished something significant. One of the officials asked me how dialogue and understanding towards the Muslim world could be converted into US policy. I replied that during my trip I was taken at how successful simple efforts at understanding could be. US diplomats and other Americans, I said, should be in the markets, mosques, and madrassas of the Muslim world, making connections with influential religious and community leaders, and most of all listening to Muslim grievances. There is an unsatisfied demand for dialogue with the West, I explained, that Americans must meet. Dr. Ahmed added that extensive US programs to fund education initiatives in the Muslim world would be successful because of the focus on ilm, or knowledge, in Islam.
Despite the prevalent atmosphere of gloom on the trip, we did witness some incredibly important work being done to reach across religious and cultural divisions in the UK. In Cambridge, Dr. Ahmed spoke of the commonalities between the Abrahamic faiths at the first ever center of Jewish/Muslim relations headed by his daughter, Dr. Amineh Hoti. I saw an example of reaching across cultures and religions when Professor Ahmed was introduced by Professor Julius Lipner, an Indian professor of theology and head of the divinity department at Cambridge. Dr. Lipner remarked that he’s known Dr. Ahmed for decades and always respected his work, his high academic standards, his constant courage in the face of difficult circumstances, and the fact that Dr. Ahmed always gets to the heart of the problem in his analysis. It was a significant gesture of goodwill, especially given the often hostile relations between India and Pakistan.
In Liverpool, Dr. Ahmed addressed graduates at the University of Liverpool after receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws. The Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, who received us graciously in both Liverpool and London, is spearheading a campaign to restore Britain's oldest mosque, founded in Liverpool in 1889. This is a powerful example of a prominent Christian reaching out to the Islamic community. The Bishop invited us for lunch at London’s famed Athenaeum club to discuss the mosque project. Sitting across the banquet table from me was Clive Alderton, Prince Charles’ Deputy Private Secretary, who was delighted I was enjoying London so much. He said that Britain’s cultural and religious diversity made the country stronger and that the Prince of Wales was committed to reaching out to Britain’s Muslims. After the turmoil of the past few weeks, it was refreshing to know that there were prominent public figures who shared my initial impressions of London. Alderton also told me that the Prince of Wales loves Dr. Ahmed’s work and couldn’t wait to read Journey into Islam, which of course really impressed me.
Traveling back to Washington, I marveled at the once in a lifetime experience I had just had and the unparalleled access I had been given. I felt we had accomplished a lot trying to promote understanding to very different audiences, but there was much left to do. Efforts at dialogue like the Bishop’s are what are needed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. High levels of anger on both sides can be brought down by a mutual exchange of ideas and symbolic gestures showing that one is interested in understanding another’s culture or religion and living in harmony, as I saw in my trip to both the Muslim world and the UK. These gestures can have a huge impact. This is the only way to live in a truly pluralistic society, and the most effective way to fight the kind of hatred and suspicion I witnessed this summer in Britain.
(Frankie Martin is a 2006 Magna Cum Laude graduate of American University and Dr. Ahmed’s research assistant. He is currently working on a book on culture, religion, and history in East Africa)

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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