An Absorbing Discussion on Pakistan in Washington
By Lauren Zuckerman
Washington , DC
The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr. These wise words once spoken by the Prophet, peace be upon him, are being put into action in Washington, DC by my professor, a scholar of Islam and the former ambassador from Pakistan to Great Britain, Dr. Akbar Ahmed. He has made it his life’s mission to spread knowledge, respect and peace to both Americans and Muslims through dialogue.
Just recently, the Council on Foreign Relations asked Dr. Ahmed to lead a conference call discussion about Pakistan. Very distinguished Americans - members of Jewish, Christian and Muslim organizations as well as individuals from the top think-tanks in Washington - participated in this conversation and asked insightful questions to Dr. Ahmed in order to gain a fuller understanding of the situation in Pakistan.
He informed his listeners that Pakistan is in a crisis situation both politically and in terms of law and order, which has completely collapsed in the tribal regions. Of great concern is the high level of anti-Americanism that has taken over the country. Pakistan is a crucial ally of the United States for several reasons: from a geographic perspective, Pakistan has an immediate impact on Afghanistan, Iran and India. The country has nuclear capabilities, as well as the potential for democracy, which can become a model for the rest of the Muslim world. It is crucial that the United States sends a message to Pakistan that Americans support the people of Pakistan.
The first question posed to Dr. Ahmed was in regard to what strategy the United States should use to go about winning the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people. Dr. Ahmed responded that Americans must show symbolic respect; politicians must be more sensitive and explain that they are friends of the Pakistani people, instead of giving the misperception that Pakistan is only a tool in the War on Terror. The United States must continue to provide aid to Pakistan, not only in weapons, but also in education, technology and health care.
The next caller asked about the future of the Pakistan Peoples Party; if it is one privileged family and whether or not the PPP is a legitimate entity as a result of Bhutto’s son taking his mother’s place in the election. Dr. Ahmed responded by saying that this family legacy the Bhuttos are displaying is typical of South Asian culture. We must put ourselves in their shoes to understand why they do this. Bhutto’s family is considered a charismatic dynasty; however, this does not make it democratic or rational.
The terrorist situation poses numerous and serious problems for the people of Pakistan. According to Dr. Ahmed, life in Pakistan is very bleak. Education is breaking down and very few Pakistanis (other than the wealthy) receive an education. Public transportation is poor, if it even exists, and food and water are scarce, leaving many Pakistanis to fend for themselves. When the populace turns to the government for support, all they find is corruption and countless violations of human rights. They also see their government allied with the United States; therefore, strong misperceptions about Americans arise as a result. When these individuals cannot turn to their government for help, they turn in desperation to local tribal leaders who provide them with alternative, extreme interpretations of Islam. This ideology is not only harmful to the people in their own country and countries around the world, but as I have been told, goes against many peaceful teachings of the Qur’an.
With all of Dr. Ahmed’s dialogue about democracy and Pakistan, a gentleman from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Safdar Chadda, commented that a recent poll in Pakistan showed that 61% of people want to live in a place run by Islamic rule. Dr. Ahmed responded by saying that sensitive nerves are being touched in Pakistan, and Pakistanis get very offended and feel a need to defend their religious prerogatives. The best sense of Pakistan is captured in Jinnah; he clearly laid out a micro and macro analysis, a Muslim vision compatible with modernity, human rights, and civil liberties. One must go back to the basics of Jinnah in order to explain what is truly right for the Pakistani people. These basic rights that are stressed by Jinnah are not as prevalent in Pakistan as Dr. Ahmed would like them to be. The prospect for a civil society with the restoration of law and order is a great concern. Dr. Ahmed tells his listeners that Pakistan is at a crossroads right now – bombarded by the many forces of oppression. The violence seen in Pakistan – particularly the suicide bomber – is new to this country. This must be challenged and contained now by Pakistan, the United States and their allies.
President Musharaff, according to a gentleman from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, seemed to be doing a good job in Pakistan but then something happened. This caller asserts that the American/Western media is being too harsh on Musharaff, by painting him and Islam in a negative light. Dr. Ahmed’s response is that a dictator goes through a cycle in his life; President Musharaff’s heart was in the right place but within a few years he has become isolated, did not enforce democracy, and removed political structure and district administrative structure. Now a collapse is taking place. Until recently, the American media has been very favorable to the Musharaff regime. Dr. Ahmed believes the Western media should have exposed more of Musharaff’s faults earlier, instead of bringing them up now.
With all this talk about democracy and freedom, the next caller asked if religious freedom is really possible in Pakistan. Dr. Ahmed insists that religious freedom and democracy are compatible because they form the basis of Pakistan’s founding principles as stated and shown by Jinnah. During the first Christmas in Pakistan, Jinnah spent his time with the Christian community and felt they should be valued and hold a role in society. Jinnah even had a man of the Christian faith on his personal staff. One of Jinnah’s role models was Abraham Lincoln, a man who was promoting similar ideas of democracy and equality on the other side of the world. Since the time of Jinnah, many things have changed in Pakistan; the kind of Islam that is being practiced is different. There needs to be a different syllabus that should be taught to students; religious freedom needs to be further developed along with many other things. It is important to remember that this is all within the realm of possibility because it is in the history of the country. Also to be noted is that Dr. Ahmed and his wife went to a Christian school in Pakistan. Dr. Ahmed says that we must work on a policy with a long-term goal in order to solve this problem.
While reading this article, many individuals might notice my name and picture, and wonder why a young, American, Jewish woman takes such interest in Pakistan and the Muslim world. I grew up in a town in the middle of America where there is not a great deal of diversity, nor are many people fully versed on the issues of Pakistan, Israel, Iran, etc. With a strong desire to learn more about my own government as well as the world around me, I moved to Washington, DC for my university studies - this is where I met my professor, Dr. Akbar Ahmed. I work with Dr. Ahmed on Muslim-Jewish relations by promoting dialogue between the two Abrahamic religions and I have been doing this for over a year. I feel so privileged to be assisting such an outstanding individual; he is my teacher, my mentor and my respected friend. Every time I am with my professor, I feel the power and inspiration to help change the world.
It is important to note, that Judea Pearl, father of the Jewish Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl (who was beheaded by a group of Pakistani jihadists in Karachi), remains a close friend of Dr. Ahmed. After Mr. Pearl heard of his son’s gruesome death (every parent’s worst nightmare), he did not turn to blind hate and anger; instead, he reached out to a Pakistani, Dr. Ahmed, for peace.
In an attempt to be heard, Dr. Ahmed expresses his message of peace through as many other venues as possible. He has written many well-received books, plays and documentaries and currently holds the Ibn Khaldun chair for Islamic studies at the American University. His most recent play, Noor, depicts a Muslim family and the struggles they face in the modern Muslim World. What is amazing about this play is that the producer is Theater J, a Jewish theater group. Their help in the presentation of Noor at the Katzen Art Center at American University saw for the first time a Jewish group producing a play written by a Muslim. Slowly but surely, Dr. Ahmed, and the rest of his team – of which I am proud to be a part - are reaching out, breaking stereotypes, forming unlikely friendships and proving that Muslims, Jews and Christians can work together in the pursuit of peace.
Many might ask why this interfaith communication is so important, and to me the answer is simple: if we do not start talking to one another now, it might be too late. So much violence stems from hate which stems from a lack of knowledge of the other, therefore let us use the power of our words to bring peace back to your family and to mine because the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.
Postscript: Irecently returned from my first trip to Israel. I traveled throughout this amazing country and even had the wonderful opportunity to meet with the part of my family that still lives there. While learning more about my own heritage and religion I kept the teachings of Dr. Ahmed in the back of my mind, and soon realized that the similarities between Judaism and Islam are remarkable. All humans want a fulfilling life of peace and happiness and whether this goal is met by following the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad or the words of the Torah, it is certainly worth the pursuit.