“A Light in the Darkness”
By Hailey Woldt
India, 1947. Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, then age four, was loaded onto a train with his parents and hundreds of other Muslims trying to avoid persecution from the Hindus. The atmosphere was filled with violence and hatred.
As they escaped to soon-to-be Pakistan, young Akbar looked up to his parents for guidance. It would have been easy to follow the crowd and consume oneself with disdain toward anyone who was not a Muslim, yet Ahmed’s mother and father took a different approach: they followed the Islamic principles of compassion, hospitality and kindness. Paralleling these strong, positive values was Pakistan’s founder, Jinnah, who maintained a high sense of justice and morality for all walks of life. These important lessons, learned early from individuals he respected and trusted, had a lasting impact on young Ahmed’s life.
Washington, DC, 2009. Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, renowned anthropologist and Islamic scholar, stands in front of a packed Theatre J at the Jewish Community Center, discussing his life as a Muslim in a play he has written called “Waziristan to Washington: A Muslim at the Crossroads.” A Muslim, writing and performing a play about Islam, being performed at a Jewish Community Center in a partnership with Theater J (a Jewish theater group) is almost unheard of in our world today.
As we listen carefully, Dr. Ahmed takes us on a journey throughout the chapters of his life. Starting with his childhood memories of escaping from India to avoid persecution, to his comfortable life with his parents in Pakistan, his arduous job of maintaining law and order in Waziristan, his life as an ambassador and Islamic scholar and all the fascinating experiences and people he has met along the way. His personal anecdotes demonstrate his ultimate expression of human understanding and desire for bridge-building, revealing to the audience the importance of reaching out and trying to understand each other in an attempt to establish peace and respect.
Ambassador Ahmed’s monologue attempts to close the gap between the Muslim world and the West, most notably the Jewish community. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains an unresolved, bloody conflict within the Middle East and the hostility has trickled into the United States as well. Ambassador Ahmed, however, has continuously reached across boundaries by forming close ties to leaders within the Jewish community. These leaders have all grown to respect and admire Ambassador Ahmed, including Ari Roth, who is the head of Theater J.
The audience that evening consisted of many individuals from different walks of life. Besides a large turnout from the Jewish community, there was also a platoon of soldiers from the United States Army. Colonel Martinez of the 4 th Battalion, 3 rd US Infantry called the play “a jewel.” They listened carefully to Dr. Ahmed’s words in order to gain a better understanding of the Muslim world before they were shipped off to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Amb. Akbar Ahmed's achievements are so many and so selfless. He has dedicated his entire life to building bridges of love and understanding where previously ignorance and hatred existed. He truly believes we can live together in a world of difference with respect. He is brilliant and tireless in his goal; one that will leave a better world, a more peaceful existence for our children. He has touched so many lives with his generosity of spirit and his gentle ways.
I have no doubt that anyone who has been fortunate enough to have spent time with this incredible man will walk away with the knowledge that they have met one of the great leaders of our generation.
(Hailey Woldt is an Ibn Khaldun Fellow at American University and a research associate at the Berkley Center. She is working with Ambassador Ahmed on his latest project “Journey into America” and more information can be found at journeyintoamerica.wordpress.com)