Return to Chautauqua
By Dr Akbar Ahmed
In June 2017, I was invited to address the Chautauqua Institution, which stretches over 750 acres in the picture-postcard lakeside town of Chautauqua in the westernmost part of the US State of New York. The Chautauqua Institution is a historic organization that began in 1874 as an adult education movement that soon spread far beyond the town where it originated and reached across the United States.
Many famous names have spoken or performed at Chautauqua including presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and musicians like Duke Ellington. President Theodore Roosevelt called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”
Initially Chautauqua trained Christian Sunday school teachers, and this legacy can be seen in its “Palestine Park,” a small model of the Holy Land built to scale featuring hills, seas, and the various cities such as Jerusalem situated among them, with the lake serving as the Mediterranean. The park was created for nineteenth century visitors who would never have been able to go on a pilgrimage to the Middle East.
Today, Chautauqua is a feast of culture with numerous events and visitors can attend one or another. There is a particular focus on religion and interfaith dialogue and I was hosted and welcomed on this, my fourth visit, by Chautauqua’s Religion Department. This year I spoke several days before Garrison Keillor, the noted American literary figure, and after Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK and a performance by the well-known American pop musician Sheryl Crow. Also speaking was broadcasting legend Bill Moyers, and I had the opportunity to reconnect with him after many years and spend time with him and his wife Judith.
I was also able to take in some of the frequent concerts performed by various orchestras, including an evening showcasing the music of the famous nineteenth century German composer Richard Wagner in Chautauqua’s historic amphitheater. The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra played perhaps his most famous composition, “The Ride of the Valkyries.” The following day, Carl LeVan, my colleague at American University and distinguished professor of African studies, showed us the beautiful garden dedicated to his father in Chautauqua.
A capacity crowd attended my talk, entitled “Being Muslim Today: Building Bridges in an Age of Uncertainty” in an outdoor theatre known as the Hall of Philosophy that resembled the Parthenon in Athens. Maureen Rovegno, the guiding spirit behind the Religion Department and our gracious host, moderated my talk. I discussed Muslim suffering around the world, including the dangers of Islamophobia in the West, the ongoing genocide of the Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar, as well as the lynching of Muslims in India accused of eating beef. I spoke of the intolerable violence in the Muslim world in places like Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and the violence faced by people like Mashal Khan who was lynched in Pakistan—Muslims killing Muslims. I also spoke of non-Muslim suffering in the Muslim world, such as that experienced by the Copts in Egypt and Christians in Pakistan, and I stressed the need for understanding, dialogue, and friendship between people of different religions and cultures.
I discussed the solid foundations of peace in Islam, and gave examples of modern leaders, like Pakistan’s founder Mr M.A.Jinnah, and their attempts to promote inter-faith harmony. I talked of some initiatives I have been involved in to further these goals including my series of public dialogues to improve Jewish-Muslim relations with Judea Pearl, the father of the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl; the “First Abrahamic Summit” in Washington, DC established to promote interfaith dialogue; and the quartet of studies I have conducted over the past decade examining Islamic-Western relations. The audience was very appreciative and I received two standing ovations.
Subsequently I screened my documentary film Journey into Europe in a packed hall and that was also very well received. I had screened a preliminary cut two years before at Chautauqua so it was gratifying to be able to return to show the finished film.
In my lecture I had cited an earlier president and author of America’s Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, and discussed his statue that can be found at the university he created, the University of Virginia. On the statue alongside Jefferson is an angel holding a tablet that reads “Religious Freedom, 1786” and includes the names of God in different religions including Allah.
It was ironic then that only few weeks later in Charlottesville, Virginia, amidst the beautiful gardens, hills, neat shops, and houses and the historic University of Virginia campus, the world saw a white nationalist rally featuring the KKK, Nazi flags and salutes that resulted in violence, injuries, and, death under the very nose of Jefferson’s statue.
When she read my article, Mr Jinnah and the Rohingya, published in this paper, Maureen wrote from Chautauqua, “Dearest Akbar, I thank you so deeply for enlightening us about this heartrending history of the Rohingya and their currently getting-worse reality. Yours is the clearest elucidation of this tragedy. May the world heed this horrific reality. In the midst of my horror, I must admit my admiration for Mr Jinnah…… and for you, dear Friend. All thanks and appreciation.”
I could see that the idea of Chautauqua was more relevant than ever in America today.
(The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, play wright, and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar
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