Building Bridges between Muslims and Non-Muslims
By Kiran Gund
The Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University Washington, DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, tackled the dynamic subject of contemporary relations between Muslims and non-Muslims during the course of his recent talk at “Chai Time” in Potomac, Maryland.
Chai Time is a multicultural community service organization started in 2000 by Bano Makhdoom to facilitate a multicultural and intellectual forum for speakers to present a variety of topics while facilitating opportunities for conversation and networking.
It was a packed hall for Ambassador Ahmed’s talk. The audience represented the Who’s who of the community with guests from the World Bank and State Department, and the leaders of the Pakistani community such as Senator Akbar Khwaja and Masood Ahmed of the IMF. It was also an interfaith gathering with members of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities in attendance.
Ambassador Ahmed opened his talk by highlighting the need for global citizens to exercise compassion though the usage of scholarly dialogue. Although the 21st century witnessed a greater degree of intermixing of individuals due to forces of globalization, there is still a lack of academic appreciation of cultures, religions and global affairs that triggers misunderstandings and in consequence, cultivates breeding grounds for hate crimes.
Ambassador Ahmed continued by reminding Americans of their obligation to engage in their pluralist society, which is the pillar of the American identity established by the founding fathers. He reaffirmed the peacefulness of Islam and its ability to be accommodated in both the American and global society. After all, the two most prominent names of Allah in the Qur'an are Al-Rahman and Al-Raheem: the most compassionate and the most merciful. Ambassador Ahmed carried out his quest for spreading understanding with his dialogue in the 1990’s England among the Jews, Christians and Muslims. However, the 9/11 terrorist attacks complicated the contextual environment that Islam occupied. 9/11 also brought Islam at the forefront of the stage, however Islam received negative, inaccurate media, which exacerbated relations between Islamic societies and the Western world.
In response to this complication, Ambassador Ahmed conducted a quartet of studies published by Brookings Press in which he examined relations between the West and the World of Islam after 9/11: Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (2007); Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010); The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013); and Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire (forthcoming). All four projects centered on common themes of intercultural relations and transcending cultural barriers. Ambassador Ahmed’s talk highlighted his continuous study of intercultural relations in Europe. In the most recent project, Journey to Europe, Ambassador Ahmed examines the historical relationship between Europe and the Muslim world and the current issues that both worlds undergo.
During the question and answer session, the audience was lively and engaged, with many important questions being asked of Ambassador Ahmed. One audience member wished to know if Muslims in the USA are better off than Muslims in Europe? Yes, replied Ambassador Ahmed. Muslims can often lead better lives in the USA than in Europe. The Muslims that arrive in Europe are guest workers; they are temporary immigrants seeking to send money back home. Most occupy low-skilled jobs. Muslims in the USA desire permanent residence. So, they are more inclined to establish themselves by climbing the social and economic ladder. Also, most originate from middle-class background and arrive with academic and professional credentials.
Following this comparison of the Muslim community, another participant asked how do Americans and Europeans address homegrown terrorism. Ambassador Ahmed responded by observing that societies must challenge the notion that American and European values are incompatible with Islam. Moreover, the Muslim community must intervene when a member is noticed for his or her dissonance with the outside society. Interfaith dialogue can be the glue to sow the torn social fabric caused by differences.
The audience was also concerned about the future. Ambassador Ahmed stated that he could not predict the future, however he could assess the present. He said the Middle East is experiencing huge plate tectonic shifts which spark turbulence that affects the rest of the world. He declared that the world is at a critical point: we can tip forward to stability and peace or we can continue being trapped in a cycle of violent conflict. But we need to make that first step towards peace. The process of building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims needs to start with dialogue between communities such as the one I experienced at Chai Time.
(Kiran Gund is an undergraduate student studying international relations at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC)