Journey Into Europe Launch a Reminder of Hurdles—and Hopes—in Peace Building
By Patrick Burnett
American University School of International Service
As a Catholic who grew up in Northern Ohio, I never thought I would be speaking on a panel at the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) annual Convention and Film Festival a mere four months after receiving my bachelor's degree.
Yet on September 5, I had the opportunity to speak alongside Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK, Dr Amineh Hoti, Director of Pakistan’s Center for Dialogue and Action—speaking a mere 36 hours after arriving in the US from Islamabad—and Michael Wolfe, renowned author and director, of the Unity Productions Foundation, on a panel at the ISNA Convention in Chicago to discuss Muslims in the media.
But more importantly, I represented the new film Journey Into Europe, one of the most important films to date on dialogue between the West and Islam, at its launch, acting as an interfaith ambassador working to promote understanding and goodwill on behalf of my country and culture.
A Powerful Launch
In Journey Into Europe, world-renowned scholar Ambassador Akbar Ahmed explores Islam in Europe and the place of Islam in European history and civilization. This project—consisting of this film and a forthcoming book—is the fourth in an unprecedented quartet studying relations between the West and the Muslim World. Along the way, we hear from some of Europe's most prominent figures – presidents and prime ministers, archbishops, chief rabbis, and grand muftis, heads of right-wing parties, and everyday Europeans from a variety of backgrounds, to uncover Islam’s place in Europe.
Growing up, given my background, never did I think I would be representing such an important project on behalf of my professor and mentor. Nor did I expect that I would have the honor of welcoming my dad, an inspiration in all that I do, to my first major professional accomplishment in launching the screening of this film.
As an undergraduate student at American University, I had the distinct honor of learning about knowledge and its importance to peace from Ahmed, my professor and mentor. Now, watching throngs of people at the exciting ISNA Convention jumping to interact with him and seeing so much public recognition of him and his work, these important lessons from the classroom were now coming to life. Lord Nazir Ahmed, the first Muslim member of the British House of Lords, even went out of his way on the convention floor to interact with Ahmed and his son and legal advisor to the film, Umar Ahmed.
In attendance for the film launch were some of America’s most prominent interfaith leaders, including Ambassador David Saperstein, the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and Imam Mohamed Majid and Mr Rizwan Jaka of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, Va. The Pakistan Consul General of Chicago, Zahid Zaman, attended as well. Having so many prominent officials in the audience was truly an honor and statement to importance of this work. A Muslim advocate from Texas even stood up to emphasize my professor’s middle name— Salahuddin. As a leader of the Ayyubid Dynasty who projected justice and compassion in his time, this emphasis shows the level of respect Ahmed commands within the American Muslim community. And with this level of respect comes a great deal of inspiration for the community.
Journey Into Europe’s Important Lessons for the West and Muslim World
After two years of grueling fieldwork and research studying Islam in Europe through the lens of European Identity, Ahmed brought to ISNA his lessons on how to build a more peaceful world.
Ahmed sees that the West and Muslim World each carry respective responsibilities to building bridges, making the ISNA Convention’s natural overlap of these worlds an ideal place to spread this message.
Among the many messages he has for American Muslims, Ahmed took the chance at ISNA to challenge the community to always value ilm, or knowledge, seek everyday to act as ambassadors of the faith and challenge those who use Islam as a justification for violence.
Yet, as a Christian American who studied abroad in Berlin and have witnessed the American and European perspectives to Islam in our respective societies, we too clearly have many lessons to learn and messages to spread in this globalizing world.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a suburb of Cleveland and Akron that was home to a myriad of families committed to the finest upbringing for their children. It was a wonderful place to grow up and emerge into the person I am today. Yet, many of those around whom I grew up were of a very similar background—White Christians born and raised in the US. I knew of one Muslim family in my entire hometown. And this is hardly a unique story even in an America as diverse as ours today. Unless people of different faiths and cultures can come together in everyday life, it will be hard to build bridges between communities.
And yet, as we are seeing in Europe today, even when one has many Muslim neighbors, there is no guarantee of mutual understanding. In Journey Into Europe, one witnesses a large protest against the building of a new mosque in Cologne, concerns of intercultural war in Bradford, and communities in the Balkans still torn nearly twenty years after the region’s devastating wars.
Ultimately, the West must remember its roots in the values of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment—humanism and treating the other with dignity and respect—and object to intolerance and violence in order to uphold our mosaic of cultures and faiths and build peace in this world.
Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is quoted in Journey Into Europe as saying, “When you realize that you don’t know your neighbors, you can either panic, or you can sit with them and listen.’”
As I write this article, Pope Francis has exonerated European parish communities to take in refugees fleeing to Europe, refugees traveling not to earn a higher income or “take jobs away,” but for their own safety and security. In Germany, while some try to burn down new asylum homes throughout the countries, many more are cheering refugees as they arrive in Munich, Berlin, and elsewhere in the country. And more and more non-Muslim Americans are working and living side-by-side peacefully with Muslims. Clearly, there is much to celebrate in the West today. This bridge-building journey is hardly over though. Until people in both the West and the Muslim World do not still believe that the “other” is out to attack them, we will not see peace in our world. We will still see young Muslims leaving for Syria, and we will still see asylum seekers attacked for “threatening” Western civilization. And members of communities all across our great nation will still see Muslims as an “other” out to attack their very way of life.
The ISNA community was very receptive to our film and showed great enthusiasm for spreading its challenging, but hopeful message. We received invitations for screenings across the country, in cities such as Dallas, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, and kind words of encouragement from many more in attendance. There is no doubt that this is a hopeful beginning for the Journey Into Europe project. But at the end of the day, we need out fellow global citizens to take in the film’s ultimate message of compassion and bridge building through understanding and spread this message throughout their communities. Until this film’s powerful message is widely spread, and people across the West—and the whole world—live up to these challenges, we are simply not going to move forward as a civilization. As we watch our TV screens during this refugee crisis, we must all watch and respect this vital film and put forth its lessons in today’s humanitarian crises.