Top Pakistani Diplomats Lecture at American University
By DrWardella Wolford Doschek
In addition to his work as an author, a filmmaker and a scholar, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, Washington, DC, is a real professor. This semester he is teaching an undergraduate class entitled The World of Islam. I was honored to be among a small group of non-students invited to attend a recent, very important session of this class.
Two distinguished visitors from the Embassy of Pakistan, Deputy Chief of Mission, Rizwan Saeed Sheikh, and Defense Attache Brigadier Chaudhary Sarfraz Ali addressed the class. Their formal comments, the importance of which was underlined by American University School of International Service Associate Dean Nanette Levinson in her warm welcome of the guests, were followed by question-and-answer sessions.
It struck me as I listened to these two gentlemen that they represent the two branches of conflict resolution among peoples and nations - diplomacy and military action. They also represent possibilities for building bridges of understanding among peoples and doing good in the world. For example, I was amazed to learn that Pakistan is the second largest contributor to peace-keeping forces worldwide.
Ambassador Ahmed set the stage for the visitors by giving some background. Why is Pakistan important in discussing the world of Islam? Pakistan was founded in 1947 with the partition of India following World War II. It was the largest Muslim nation in the world at that time. As envisioned by its founder, M.A. Jinnah, it was to be governed by the rule of law and respect for the rights of minorities – in short, what Ahmed called modernist Islam. Unique in the world, it attempted to balance the traditional with modernity. Pakistan's achievements include the Muslim world's first female prime minister, its first Nobel Prize winner, and its first nuclear power plant.
Pakistan is a close ally of the United States. Geopolitically, Pakistan is at the geopolitical center of China, India and Central Asia, making it strategically important. India, Pakistan and Afghanistan have deep cultural, social and historical relationships that need to be recognized. Pakistan faces many challenges today and is often seen as chaotic and violent by people in the US. The United States needs to better understand the situation in Pakistan and not abandon the country as it has in the past. The US media needs to stop too frequently portraying Pakistan in a negative manner. We need to help Pakistan with its problems and renew the original vision of Pakistan's founders.
Thanks to the presentations of our distinguished speakers, we came to see Pakistan through the eyes of the Pakistanis. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan has been at the center of a firestorm. A relatively small country with a traditionally agrarian based economy, like much of South Asia, Pakistan is blessed with fertile land and an abundance of water. It is densely populated with 65% of the population under 35 years of age, so there is much economic potential. But there is also a great need for education, health services, and jobs. Religiosity is important in Pakistan. Whereby religion is mostly a personal matter in the United States, it is more of a collective matter in Pakistan. This can sometimes lead to the segregation of cultures.
Pakistan has a number of centers of power. The military is strong and quite influential. There is also an independent and assertive judiciary, as well as a fiercely independent media that serves as a watchdog. A long-standing dispute with neighboring India involves Kashmir. This dispute creates considerable tension and must be resolved according to the wishes of the people of Kashmir. The US and other Western powers should encourage the resolution of this dispute.
Following the invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in 1979 there was a considerable influx of money and fighters into the region from other parts of the Muslim world. Religious warfare was glorified and encouraged. Money and arms flowed in from the West. Pakistan played an important role in eventually defeating the Soviet Union. Once the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was over, however, the rest of the world withdrew, leaving Pakistan to deal with all the problems left in its wake, including radicalized youth who knew nothing except how to fight. Pakistan has been trying to deal with these issues, but without outside assistance it can only do so in its own way and on its own timetable. They are dealing with truly huge numbers of refugees, for example, and face difficulty in controlling their borders. Water and energy both present significant challenges for the future.
Despite serious problems, Pakistan has been making progress in attempting to improve not only its own economy but also that of the region. China and Pakistan, for example, have bilateral cooperation on the improvement of infrastructure. Pakistan has also made progress in combating terrorism, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. Some time ago the Taliban occupied the northern Swat region. Pakistan has now recaptured this region following a long and bitter fight.
Ambassador Ahmed's class is a long one. Meeting once a week, it is almost three hours in length. There is a break in the middle, during which students and their professor eat lunch. I was quite impressed with how focused the students remained during the entire duration of the class. They were completely engrossed in learning, quite an encouraging sight. During the lunch break the students were invited by Ahmed to gather around a large table and broke bread with our speakers. How many young, undergraduate students have the opportunity to share an informal meal with a Deputy Chief of Mission and a Brigadier? Here was yet another unique opportunity for learning.
Our distinguished speakers, Deputy Chief of Mission Sheikh and Brigadier Ali, both took time from their busy schedules to speak with students because they recognize students as the leaders of tomorrow. They were surprised and pleased by the insight and understanding shown by the students' questions. They encouraged the students to continue to seek deeper understanding of issues and have the courage to rise above preconceptions and seek knowledge. Surely, this is a pedagogical, intellectual, and moral goal to which we all can aspire.
At the end of the class, I had the pleasure of presenting my book, Straight and Sensible: My Journey to the Straight Path of Islam, to the distinguished speakers, who graciously expressed their delight at receiving it. In the end, in keeping with the tradition of the class, the students thanked the speakers on behalf of the class and the teaching staff and gathered for a group photo to commemorate this very unique and special occasion.
(DrWardella W. Doschek, Board Member (Secretary) of the Muslim Women's Association of Washington, DC is author of Straight and Sensible, My Journey to the Straight Path of Islam)