American Muslims Must Pursue Dialogue, Engagement
B y Ali Imran
Muslim Americans should reach out to communities in order to foster a better understanding of Islam and take part in dialogue at multiple levels to deal with divisive rhetoric that has led to a sudden spike in verbal and violent attacks, a leading scholar Dr Akbar Ahmed said.
Prof. Ahmed, who is Ibn Kahldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, addressed a gathering as part of the Coffee, Controversy and Conversation (CC&C) series at the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Md. In the past, the Sunday lecture series welcomed several top dignitaries, including Ralph Nader.
The event took place at a time when American society faces political fissures after scathing election campaigns – with implications for racial, intercultural and ethnic relations in the United States’ unique salad bowl of diverse cultures.
In the midst of these complex challenges, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed was extended an invitation for the event by his neighbor, Steve Buck, a retired senior American Foreign Service Officer who has held top appointments in such countries as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the chair of the Middle East Task Force at the Congregation.
The session attracted a full house of enthusiastic congregants, keen to have a conversation about Islam in a polite, positive way.
A central point of Ahmed’s talk was comparing the situation in America today versus the direct aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He emphasized that much like in the aftermath of 9/11, Americans feel a sense of uncertainty and crisis. The difference though, he said, is that anger was targeted at Muslims alone following the attacks, whereas today, all minority groups are in the crosshairs.
Ahmed also cited some of the key foreign policy, economic and national security issues that the world and Americans want to be clear about. What will happen with NATO? What is the future of Russian-American relations?
Author of several books on contemporary challenges, Prof. Ahmed gave the congregation a note of caution following an audience question about Muslim internment camps and a registry of Muslims in the US.
“We must be very careful to not give in to rumors in this time, as unfounded rumors simply add to the uncertainty and fear sweeping across the nation.”
Yes, some people close to transition officials have made statements about considering such actions, he said, but reminded all that “no one has made an official statement about registries and internment camps, and that there is no evidence of concrete plans underway within the transition team.”
He argued, “We all must bring down the temperature and give the incoming administration a chance to settle down and put policies forth. Then, we should respond to any concrete policy we find untenable.”
As part of his lecture, Ahmed emphasized the values of “love and compassion that we all, regardless of faith, must work hard to promote now and always.”
He discussed how to him, as a Muslim, Jesus stands for love and compassion. He also discussed how of the 99 names of God in the Qur’an, the two most frequently cited are Rahman and Rahim – meaning the Beneficent and the Merciful.
“Our faith traditions all preach love, mercy and compassion, and it is imperative that we always remember these lessons, both in good times and bad.”
The audience of some 120 congregants gave a positive response following the lecture. Many in the highly educated and accomplished congregation said this was one of the best expositions they have attended in the series, and particularly noted that Ahmed’s lecture addressed the current environment not on emotional terms, but on the basis of fact, logic and reason.
One Mexican woman in the audience even requested to thank Ahmed in the “Mexican way” — with a very warm hug.
Following the program, CC&C coordinator Nancy Henningsen wrote in a warm thank you note to Ahmed, expressing the congregation’s gratitude for his lecture: “On behalf of CC&C I want to express our deep appreciation for your excellent talk today. Dialogue, understanding, and friendship must be our new motto is learning about our neighbors… We at River Road were fortunate to hear your eloquent and meaningful remarks at such a critical time in our country. We must all be vigilant about the ‘slippery slope.’”
Dr Ahmed’s talk and the constructive exchange of ideas at the gathering emanated a series of vital messages:
First, one thing that is clear in this time of uncertainty is that neighbors do not wish to exclude Muslim Americans. Rather, they want to hear from them and learn more about their culture and faith.
The other critical takeaway – it is through dialogue, engagement and conversation, both at public and media platforms, that Muslim Americans can help bridge the gap and strengthen their place in the American fabric.
Thirdly, the United States, being a leader on the world stage, and all American communities, being agents of democracy, must move forward in a spirit of coexistence.