A Healthy Discussion on Islam between a Jewish and a Muslim Scholar
By C. Naseer Ahmad
Professors Bernard Lewis and Akbar Ahmed
A clash of civilizations is what some would like you to believe is happening in the world today. But, if you were at the World Affairs Council a day after the elections, you would not have seen any nuclear exchange between the Jews and the Muslims. In fact, unlike the diatribes exchanged between politicians during the recent mid-term US elections, the 90-minute program moderated by Ms. Heidi Stoup, President World Affairs Council, was a delightful experience for the diverse audience - representing perhaps the cream of the crop in Washington, including students from area universities.
A Special Briefing on the Middle East and Islam at the Charles Sumner School, Washington, DC, began with friendly gestures like Professor Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, helping the 95- year-young Professor Bernard Lewis climb the stage. During the pleasant discussion, Professor Ahmed even opened a water bottle when Professor Lewis seemed to choke. And, the warmth continued in the cool November evening.
On this historic day, these scholars discussed Islam in the context of the so-called 'Clash of Civilizations'. Each took a strategic position to launch their intellectual barrages. Professor Lewis - author of 29 books - presented his arguments from a historian's point of view. While Professor Ahmed - author of several books and BBC documentaries - presented an anthropologist's perspective. Neither one tried to pulverize the other's argument. Between the lines each slipped in a witty argument which worked like grenades causing the audience to burst in laughter throughout the event. Levity, however, did not prevent either one from getting his point across. For the audience it was a relief that this intellectual match did not go into overtime as did the last - the Federer-Nadal contest in Wimbledon.
Professor Ahmed refuted former Vice-President's ill-informed opinion that Muslims like to be ruled by dictators. He rejected the idea of a perpetual war between America and the Muslim World and lamented the poisonous Islamophobia in the media. Citing the war in Afghanistan - the longest war in US history - he mentioned that millions had been displaced and about 30,000 Pakistanis killed since 9/11. 'Nothing is going to be solved unless the disparity is addressed', he said. Citing examples of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia which have elected female government leaders, Professor Ahmed continued to say, "The democratic impulse is strong". He denounced the constant "sense of fear" created by the past administration and by politicians seeking to exploit the voters. He went on to say that "the need to defeat and humiliate the average Muslim" is neither helpful nor could achieve any constructive goals. Speaking about the "demonization of Islam", Professor Ahmed quoted a survey which said the 20-25% Americans mistakenly believe that President Obama is a Muslim. Making a "caricature of an idea deprives us of a solution", Professor Ahmed warned
'Islam should not be held responsible for the tribal customs of tribal societies that accepted Islam', said Professor Lewis. He spoke of tribal customs like female genital mutilation and honor killing having no place in the teachings of Islam. Continuing his arguments, he added 'Islam is governed by a system of laws'.
Professor Ahmed said that Muslims should not be viewed as a monolithic body because there are mystics with Sufi traditions, modernists with a different outlook and then the literalists like the Salafis with an intolerant view. Speaking about the promotion of knowledge, Professor Ahmed said, 'Ilm (Arabic word for knowledge) was the second most used word in the Qur’an'.
'La ikra fid din - there is no compulsion in religion'. Professor Lewis recited this verse in Arabic and provided an explanation. He went to say that 'Islam expressly condemns terrorism'. In his view, an Islamic renaissance is needed to change the course of events.
It is ironic that many in the Muslim world, due to illiteracy, not only might not be aware about this Qur’anic teaching but would dismiss anything that Professor Lewis might say just because he is Jewish. Professor Lewis read some interesting quotes from Turkish scholars of the Ottoman era. He also cited quotes citing the tolerance for minorities from a French Ambassador stationed in Istanbul during the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. "Here the Sultan has to consult with his advisers", Professor Lewis noted the remarks in the diplomat’s dispatch to the chaotic Paris during the upheaval following the French Revolution.
"There was tolerance even for deviant among Muslims", Professor Lewis stated. Through his remarks, Professor Lewis not only expressed a certain respect for Islam but also a high degree of scholarly expertise. Commenting on the current world situation, and in response to a question, Professor Lewis remarked that "modernization does not always bring improvement".
With this dialogue, Professor Ahmed seems to distinguish himself from his peers because of his outreach to the Jewish community for mutual understanding and dialogue. And, this healthy exchange of ideas refuted some popular misconceptions about any serious discussion of ideas between scholars of different faiths.
Both scholars appeared hopeful that serious dialogue between faiths has taken root. They also seemed to agree on how to approach Iran and the nuclear issue. Noting the long history of the Iranian Civilization and the people, Professor Lewis suggested not to portray the argument as 'preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons but preventing a despotic regime from acquiring the nuclear technology'. He argued for respecting the 'patriotic sentiments' and pride of the Iranian citizens. Professor Ahmed supported the idea of not disrespecting the nationalistic emotions involved.
An interesting evidence of the increasing interfaith dialogue was an overheard conversation in which an arch conservative anti-tax activist extended an invitation to the Imam of the All Dulles Area Muslims (ADAMS) Center to speak at a conservative think-tank.
According to Joshua S. Silva, International Affairs Director, World Affairs Council, the program will air on MHz Networks WorldView Channel as a part of WAC-DC’s “World Affairs Now” television series that will begin to air on Sunday afternoons. He thinks that the additional outreach via television broadcast and the availability of the video on the Internet will serve as an example of civil dialogue and a tool for understanding.