Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization
The Brookings Institution
Years after the tragic events of 9/11, tensions between the Muslim and Western worlds remain acute. Seeking to establish dialogue and understanding between Islamic and Western cultures, internationally renowned scholar Akbar Ahmed led a team of dedicated young Americans on a daring and unprecedented tour of the Muslim world. Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization is the riveting story of their search for common ground. Ambassador Ahmed’s book is the culmination of a partnership among The Brookings Institution, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and American University’s School of International Service, which explores the question, “Who speaks for Islam?” in an era of globalization.
On June 13, The Brookings Institution hosted a discussion of Ahmed’s new book. Rejecting stereotypes and conventional wisdom about Islam and its encounters with globalization, Ahmed and fellow panelists offered insightful suggestions on how the United States can improve relations with Muslim nations and peoples.
Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University
Stephen Grand, Director, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, The Brookings Institution
STEPHEN GRAND: Welcome. My name is Steve Grand, and I’m the director of the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, housed within the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. On behalf of Brookings and our partners today, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and American University, we would like to offer a warm welcome to everyone; we’re delighted you are here.
Congressman Keith Ellison will be joining us shortly. His staff has sent his apologies; there are votes underway, and he should be arriving as soon as possible. The book we’ll be discussing today, Journey into Islam, grew out of an initiative jointly sponsored by the Pew Forum, American University and Brookings on Islam in the Age of Globalization.
Before we begin, I would like to recognize and thank two key partners in this important initiative. One is Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Luis, thank you.
I would also like to mention Peter Singer, who is my predecessor as director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. I don’t believe he is here with us today, but he was part of the inspiration for and did a lot of the leg work behind this important initiative.
This joint project began with a question: who speaks for Islam in an age of globalization? It sought to examine the forces shaping how authority within Islam is legitimated in the modern Muslim world; how leaders establish their authority, especially in relation to the divine texts; and who publics see as role models today and whether and how they accord political leaders legitimacy, and what this means for politics and policy in the region. Such questions of legitimacy and authority are vital and bear heavily on important issues regarding the United States’ relationship with Muslim states and communities throughout the world.
The lead investigator for this project, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, and a team of four young researchers, who are with us today, set out to find answers to these questions through a trip to eight countries across the Muslim world, with the generous financial support of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. They conducted a formal questionnaire, mostly of youth, but also documented a range of conversations, personal experiences and observations during the course of their journey. They spoke to cab drivers and sheiks, students and professors, men and women, princes and farmers, and asked them their thoughts and opinions of the world around them.
The final product of this wide-ranging inquiry is the book, Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization. Through the book, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed takes us on a fascinating and educational tour of the Muslim world, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, exposing us along the way to the authentic voices of the region. It is an unusual, compelling, and comprehensive book that, as Ambassador Ahmed himself has described it, has a number of levels to it. It is all at once a field trip to the Muslim world by a professor from the region and a team of energetic young Americans; an anthropologist’s case study of a traditional civilization undergoing change in an age of globalization; a Muslim scholar’s attempt to understand his community with a view to helping it find its way in the modern world; a Pakistani’s personal return home after several years in the West; and an optimist’s attempt to promote dialogue and understanding between two increasingly hostile civilizations.
We are privileged to have with us today to discuss Journey into Islam the book’s author, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, and a distinguished group of panelists.
Before turning it over to Ambassador Ahmed, let me begin by introducing a few of our esteemed panelists, and I’ll save the introduction of Congressman Ellison for his arrival. Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, is an internationally renowned expert on Islam and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He has taught at Princeton, Harvard and Cambridge and has been a leader in promoting interfaith dialogue around the world. He has served as High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain and has advised both Prince Charles and President George W. Bush on issues related to Islam. His many books include After Terror: Promoting Dialogue among Civilizations with Brian Forst and Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History in Society. He received his Ph.D. from the University of London.
To his right is Ambassador Aziz Mekouar, the Ambassador of Morocco to the United States since June 19, 2002. Prior to taking his current assignment, Ambassador Mekouar served as Ambassador to Italy. Prior to that, he was elected Independent Chairman of the Council of the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization in November 2001 and reelected in 2003. He’s previously served as Ambassador to Portugal and to Angola. He has also served as minister plenipotentiary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation in Morocco, permanent representative of Morocco to the International Bureau for Information Technology, and first counselor and deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Morocco in Rome. He attended the French high school Charles Lepierre in Lisbon, Portugal and obtained a graduate degree from the Higher School of Commerce in Paris, France.
To his right is another internationally renowned expert on South Asia and foreign policy more generally, Stephen Cohen, a colleague and senior fellow here in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, where he has served since 1998. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Wisconsin. In 2004, he was named as one of the 500 most influential people in the field of foreign policy by the World Affairs Councils of America. Professor Cohen was a faculty member at the University of Illinois. He was also a scholar-in-residence at the Ford Foundation in New Delhi, and, from 1985 to 1987, he was a member of the policy planning staff at the Department of State, where he dealt with South Asia. He has taught at Andhra University in India, Keio University in Tokyo, Georgetown University, and he now teaches across the street in the South Asian program of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. A big thank you to all our panelists, and let me turn the floor over to Ambassador Ahmed.
AMBASSADOR AKBAR AHMED: Thank you, Steve. Thank you for that very warm and clear introduction to what we are going to be doing this afternoon.
I’d like to start by listing some thanks that are long overdue, firstly to my wife, to whom I dedicated the book. Throughout my career, she has been a rock of support, affection and ideas. I would also like to thank my team, the wonderful young Americans who traveled with me, and they’re all here today: Hadia Mubarak, Jonathan Hayden, Hailey Woldt and Frankie Martin: they, for me, became the best ambassadors of the United States in its attempts to understand the Muslim world. They were dedicated, they were committed, and nothing deterred them from seeking the truth in the field.
The senior members who advised me – Dr. Lugo, Dean Goodman, Steve Cohen, Peter Singer – I thank all of them for their support and inspiration. Of course Dr. Tim Shah is no longer with the Pew Forum. The excellent Brookings Institution Press, headed by Bob Faherty – each and everyone one of them has made the production of this book such a delight. I know how we constantly, my team and I, pester [publicity manager] Susan Soldavin. When we ask her at any odd time, “Susan, could you send a copy out to Bombay or Islamabad?” she never says no. And, of course, thanks to this very distinguished panel, which I’m privileged to be part of.
We are here to launch this book, Journey into Islam, but there are two other launches taking place as a kind of bonus. There is a six-week guide to understanding the study of Islam through Journey into Islam, and the Reverend Swartly from Richmond has sent his assistant, Ryan, to introduce the guide, which is excellent teaching material.
Then there is a new CD, an audio 12-lecture series called “Encountering Islam,” just completed by Michael Bloom, also being introduced here this evening. I am grateful to all of you for being here, especially to those of you who have come from outside Washington, D.C., such as Ryan from Richmond and my friend, Terry Woldt, from Dallas. Thank you, Terry, for being with us this evening.
So firstly, the why, what, and how. The why. The why are we studying Islam was answered to you this morning on the news. The mosque at Samarra was blown up again; it is one of the oldest structures in the Muslim world. It’s not just a question of being a Shia mosque, as commentators often point out. A mosque is a mosque for every Muslim, and as a Muslim, I am so shattered to see one of the architectural and theological wonders of the Muslim world blown up. Then there is Gaza in anarchy. Explosions in Lebanon this morning. Afghanistan, the Taliban resurgent. And the news from Pakistan, which has to be watched very closely.
These are the whys of why we need to be looking at the world of Islam, and looking at it closely. For me as a social scientist, these events create issues around the concept of leadership, change, and the rapid processes of globalization that affect traditional societies, which is what you see happening in the Muslim world. For me sitting in Washington after 9/11 and commenting on Islam and its relations with the West, it became imperative to visit the Muslim world for a period of time, to look at the Muslim world with some intensity, and that is why I undertook this journey. It became a kind of personal pilgrimage. And I could not have performed it without the wonderful support structures I acknowledged.
Field trips are extremely important to anthropologists, and this was a kind of anthropological excursion. I was delighted because the members of the team with me showed all the signs of budding young anthropologists. We went to the Middle East, South Asia and Far East Asia. We met, as Steve pointed out, a whole range of Muslim leaders – presidents and princes and sheiks – and we talked to students and visited people’s homes. We conducted questionnaires, and we talked in depth to individuals. We met Sufi saints. We met the orthodox in their mosques and madrassas. We met those who want to be modern and interact with the modern world. In short, we met different kinds of Muslims. Throughout our meetings, we related our findings to theoretical models, and ultimately we are one of the great think tanks of the world; we must be conscious of theory behind conversation, commentary and talk.
We related our findings to the theoretical frames within which we look at leadership, change, and societies undergoing massive transformations. We came up again and again against the impossible problems and controversies and dilemmas of defining Islam. How do you define Islam? As a Muslim – not so much as a social scientist – but as a Muslim, I am intrigued, puzzled, and sometimes I despair, and I’m sure my brother on my right will agree with this, when I hear words like Islamofascism. That, in a broad sense, labels every Muslim. However you phrase Islamofascism, saying, “His Excellency, the Moroccan Ambassador, is not one of those,” the broad brush-stroke makes every Muslim uncomfortable. So how do you look at Muslim societies? I believe we have come up with the answer. The answer is, as one of my young team members would say, read the book.
In the book, we give you three models that are now in play and have been in play for the last two centuries. This is an ongoing dynamic within Muslim society, which started with the first impact of Western colonization in the middle of the nineteenth century, and that drama is still being played out right now. 9/11 was a catalyst: it escalated the drama, but it did not create the drama.
We also wanted to approach those who inspire the Muslim world. Who speaks for Islam? But knowing something of the Muslim world and having conducted this kind of questionnaire in the past, I knew the futility of asking the question, who speaks for Islam? You can’t sit in Syria and ask someone, “Who do you think is the best spokesman for Islam?” The answer, 100 percent of the time, will be “President Asad of Syria,” because if you don’t give that answer, you may be in trouble with the authorities. The way around it, of course, is to simply ask, “Who are your role models?” That’s an indirect way of asking the same question.
This question resulted in some very interesting responses. We had a whole set of responses for contemporary role models, which were really intriguing, and which pointed to the fact that there is no one towering role model in the Muslim world right now. There are a whole range of role models reflecting the three distinct models we identified: the mystic, the literalist orthodox, and the modernist.
When we asked, “Who is the greatest, number-one role model from the past?” we found that whether Muslims were rich or poor, young or old, Turk or Pakistani or Bangladeshi or Moroccan, for the vast majority, the ultimate role model was the prophet of Islam. Now if we here in Washington are determined to win hearts and minds, as the State Department is, we need to know that for the vast majority of Muslims, the number one role model is the prophet of Islam. Therefore if we abuse the prophet of Islam, Muslims, whatever their persuasion – orthodox, secular, atheist, whatever – will be unhappy. They may be upset and angry, and some may even be tempted to violence.
These are some practical things that can benefit those who plan policy here in the United States when they look at our study. We asked people what was the number one problem agitating Muslims. And we were surprised. We expected the traditional answers – Israel, Iraq – and while Israel and Iraq formed part of the answer, the number one problem Muslims saw facing them was the perception that Islam was being deliberately distorted or attacked by the West. This is a very important notion. Again, if you want foreign policy to take a certain direction, to create friends, to win hearts and minds, you simply need to be aware what is actually happening in the Muslim world.
In the book you will be able to hear ordinary Muslim voices. You will feel their emotions and sometimes their anger. You will hear their irrational responses along with their wisdom and compassion. You will be able to hear and see in action this remarkable young group that traveled with me, young Americans interacting with Muslims across the world, sometimes in very challenging situations. That may give you hope, that here are young Americans playing the role of ambassadors in a way that ambassadors who are often paid huge sums of money and are protected and have all the privileges may not be able to play as effectively. Maybe they have something to learn from these Americans.
You’ll also discover some solid policy recommendations that we have at the end of the book. We listed things that Americans – policy makers, planners, administrators and Muslims – need to be doing. It has to be a joint effort on both sides because we are constantly pointing to the interconnected nature of the world we live in. It is the age of globalization, and globalization by definition means interconnectedness. We need to constantly remind ourselves why this is important. There are1.4 billion Muslims, roughly, in the world today; by the middle of this century, one out of four people on this planet will be Muslim; 57 nations, one nuclear for the time being. Maybe in the next decade or two, there may be more nuclear nations. Iran is aspiring to be nuclear, but so are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and so on. I am not sure about Morocco, Your Excellency, but –
AMBASSADOR AZIZ MEKOUAR: No. No.
AMBASSADOR AHMED: There is one point I want to urge you towards. Apart from issues of globalization and leadership and change discussed in the book is something more human, and that is the notion of compassion and hope and friendship. That is normally, and Steve, I say this to you with great respect, left out of the calculations of the thinkers and the analysts sitting in the think tanks. Sometimes they assume the people they are dealing with are not really human or at least that they don’t have a heart. But ultimately, human beings to respond to emotion, to ideas of compassion and to ideas of friendship. In that sense, I would urge you to look at the world through a slightly different lens. Tomorrow, for example, we have another launch, another extraordinary event, and I really am grateful to Brookings for organizing this wonderful evening. It’s at the National Cathedral with my great friends, Bishop John Chane (http://www.edow.org/diocese/bishops/chane_bio.html), and the senior rabbi, Bruce Lustig (http://www.whctemple.org/bios.htm). I am not saying we are covering the bases, but I am saying that we are there to talk to the spiritual side of our nations.
Today I would appeal you to think in terms of foreign policy, realpolitik, international affairs, but also to remember that we are dealing with this mass civilization, this great civilization, this ancient civilization of Islam, and that Muslims are human. Muslims are as human as you and I, and if we can reach out to them and create bridges of understanding, we will be able to change how people are living in the world today, and therefore, not only make ourselves feel more secure, but make the world feel more secure. Maybe then the United States can do what it needs to be doing, which is taking the lead in the 21st century on the great global issues facing all of us a global civilization, including global warming, population explosion and poverty issues. Let me conclude with a plea, a request: join us on this journey. Join us on this journey toward understanding, compassion, and bridge building. Thank you.
GRAND: Thank you, Ambassador Ahmed. You quote the Prophet Mohammad in your book as saying “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” I think both with your comments and with the formidable book you’ve written, you show why that is true.
AMBASSADOR AHMED: Thank you so much, Steve.
GRAND: Let me turn it over to Steve Cohen.
STEPHEN COHEN: Thank you, Steve. With the possible exception of his wife, I believe I have known Akbar longer than anybody else in this room. We were associated in a couple of projects in the 1970s, when Akbar was still an administrator in the Government of Pakistan service and also an aspiring, promising academic. He’s one of the few people I have seen who has been able to manage two careers very successfully. After 9/11, when the Saban Center opened up for business, Akbar was one of the people we turned to right away to educate us and bring us up to speed on the Islamic world.
I have three comments to make and then I’ll get out of the way so others can speak. First, this is the ultimate journey or road book. There are a lot of books written about “my travels here and there,” but this one penetrates to the core of a civilization, a very complex civilization, and I draw a couple of conclusions from that aspect of the book.
There are major differences within Islam, and the different models Dr. Ahmed has described are important to understand. But other cultures and civilizations have similar structures, including debates among the ethereal, the analytic, the extremist, and so forth. You find this popping up in Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. In some ways the linkage between the extremists and the moderates in different cultures are closer than those within each culture. This point is made throughout the book, and through Dr. Ahmed’s interfaith dialogues, it becomes even more apparent.
One of the great works that deals with this issue, Sam Huntington’s bookThe Clash of Civilizations, I’ve always regarded as profoundly misguided, and I’ve told Dr. Huntington this. The clash of civilizations is not between civilizations as much as it is within them; the line between the major cities of Pakistan, Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, to the east and to the west, is more of an important dividing line than that between Pakistan as a whole and, say, India as a whole, or between Pakistan and China.
My second point pertains to the way in which the book was researched and written. The skills of an anthropologist are more policy-relevant today than when Akbar Ahmed got his Ph.D. Not only does culture shape the behavior and perception of states, but individuals and groups now have their own foreign policies, their own armies, in fact; they’re super-empowered. In some cases, their actions are not mediated by any institutions, rather, their actions flow directly from their perceptions of their own culture and environment. It’s important to understand this if you’re going to understand the actions of smaller groups and even individuals who have profound influence on our lives today.
A policy implication from this point is that we must become less obsessed with technology and more expert in culture and society. The U.S. Army is now going to dramatically increase its foreign affairs officer program. I think the U.S. Navy is going to have a foreign affairs officer program as well. We’ve lacked this to date. We placed our faith in technology, both in intelligence-gathering and analysis, and clearly technology lets us down when it comes to cultures that are different than ours.
The greatest repository of America’s regional expertise historically has been the State Department, but too often when you go to embassies around the world, you find them locked up behind walls: essentially, they are forts. I was just in Islamabad last week, and I drove by the U.S. Embassy, and I thought, “There’s no sense in going there.” [The diplomats] can’t get out, and people don’t want to go there. It’s really isolated from Pakistan. I meet more Pakistanis by living outside of Pakistan than being in the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.
So the State Department has its own problems in terms of access and insight, besides being starved for funds over the years. As a country, to develop understanding of both Islam and other cultures and civilizations, we’ve got a bureaucratic problem. The military understands this because of their experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Third point I’d like to make is that ideas do count, and this is a concept to which the book is devoted. The strength of the United States – its practical approach to problem solving – is also a weakness. We can’t listen to others. We don’t understand that they may see the world differently.
A wonderful euphemism that’s circulating around Washington is “kinetic solution,” that is, beating up somebody or shooting them. Kinetic solutions don’t work. If you have to use a kinetic solution – that is, shoot them – you’ve already lost the war of ideas. America’s great strength – our practical approach to problem solving – has become our great weakness. We don’t take the time to listen and, if not to respect, at least to understand other cultures and civilizations.
The policy implications here are to get out and meet with people, and to reestablish the international libraries that used to be cultural centers in many countries. In Pakistan, when I first went there, I think there were eight different American centers. There are zero now. In Pakistan and other countries, the American center or library was often the cultural and intellectual center point for local and national dialogue. These kinds of institutions have disappeared around the world. They’re still relevant, still powerful, and we need to rebuild them to be able to compete in the world.
Finally, just one point about the book itself, and your remarkable research team. Two weekends ago, I heard James Watson, the Nobel Prize winner, discoverer of DNA and author of The Double Helix, address an audience. He said he’d like to stick with young people and not with old people — he being a very old person. I am not quite as old a person but I still sympathize with the view. He said young people are interested in the future.
At first, I was skeptical about the way in which you organized the project, Dr. Ahmed, bringing Hailey and the others along with you, but as I talked to them when they came back and as I read the book, I realized it was a very insightful decision. You were able to reach down to a new generation of Indians, Pakistanis, and others who happen to be Muslims, in a way I could never have done. I think that’s a major contribution of the book and, also, of some of the contributions your young research assistants have written separately. I agree with Watson that if you want to learn about the future, stick with the young because they are the future.
AMBASSADOR AHMED: Thank you.
GRAND: Thank you, Steve. I enjoy your emphasis on the cultural over the kinetic, and that comes out very clearly in Ambassador Ahmed’s book as well. We have the pleasure of being joined by Congressman Keith Ellison. Congressman, if you allow me, I’m going to give you a moment to catch your breath –
KEITH ELLISON: I’m ready to go.
GRAND: I’m going to turn to Ambassador Mekouar for a few short remarks, and then we’ll move to you. Ambassador Mekouar.
AMBASSADOR MEKOUAR: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be with you, and thank you for inviting me to be part of this panel. It’s an honor to be sitting next to my good friend, Ambassador Akbar. We’ve known each other for five years, since I arrived here. I was immediately attracted to what Professor Akbar thinks and what he writes, and thank you very much for allowing me to be with him.
I’d like to bring out three or four ideas. First of all, on the book itself. I think it’s a wonderful approach to go and ask Muslims who they are and what they think about the world. It’s very interesting for me, as a Muslim, to know what Muslims think because, as Professor Akbar said, there are the seculars, the orthodox, and the Sufis, and these three groups are completely isolated one from each other; they don’t connect. Very often they don’t like each other. Maybe everybody likes the Sufis because they’re the nicest, because they have a wonderful, easy approach to religion. It’s not about being orthodox or implementing the rules of religion by the book; it’s more love and the love of God. But usually these people do not interact, especially the orthodox and the seculars, who look at each other with a lot of diffidence. It’s very interesting to see the study that Professor Akbar and his team did by traveling around the Muslim world, and it’s wonderful for a Muslim to read that.
The second thing I want to say is about the problems we have when we see people being extremists and blowing themselves up. That’s very hard to explain and to understand why that’s happening. In Morocco recently, two people blew themselves up. [The government] captured their leader and instead of turning him over to the police, they put him in the hands of psychiatrists and religious scholars to understand why, why is that happening? So I think your approach, Professor Akbar, is the best approach: to understand what people think. That opens up some avenues.
I come from, let’s say, a more secular group of Muslims, but I also come from a country that is profoundly Muslim. We have some orthodox, very few, and generally people are open. Nonetheless, what you say about the feeling of Islam being under siege – that’s true. The people in the Muslim world, especially the more Westernized people, have the impression the West does not wish them well. It’s because of the way Islam is depicted in the press. Everybody now has access to the international media; everybody watches CNN and Fox. The way Islam is depicted in the Western media gives the impression that there is something behind it; there are conspiracy theories.
Finally, I want to say something about this trip Professor Akbar and his team went on, especially when Professor Abkar said his American students were ambassadors of the United States. That’s very important. Professor Akbar asked you to understand that Muslims are humans, just like you, him and me – at least, he and I are Muslims. But it’s also very important that Muslims understand that Americans are humans. We have this gap and this perception problem from the two worlds.
If you ask Muslims – and I’m sure you faced that – they think America is all about oil interests and capitalists. It’s not about compassion, it’s not about solidarity. Yet one of the big qualities of America is this compassion and solidarity that you find out as soon as you step on the soil of the United States.
Professor Akbar, you talked about building bridges. I think that the bridges are already there. We just need to cross them. The bridges exist, though not everybody know they are there. Just as we are in the same boat, but not everyone knows it. Those are the ideas I wanted to share before giving the floor to the Congressman. Thank you very much.
GRAND: Thank you, Ambassador Mekouar. Congressman Ellison, we’re very pleased to have you with us here today.
For those who don’t know him, Congressman Keith Ellison is a member of the Democratic Farmer Labor Party serving in his first term in the United States House of Representatives, representing the fifth Congressional district, which includes the city of Minneapolis and its surrounding suburbs. When he was elected in 2006, Congressman Ellison made history by becoming the first member of the Muslim faith elected to Congress in the United States. In Congress, Congressman Ellison serves on the financial services committee and also the judiciary committee. We’re delighted to have him with us today.
ELLISON: Thank you.
It’s only fitting to start by saying peace be unto you, as-salaam aleikum. When I was a freshly minted congressman, the King of Jordan came and spoke. At the end of his remarks, he said “As-salaam aleikum,” and I just answered, automatically, “Wa-aleikum salaam.” My fellow members of Congress came up to me afterwards and asked, “What is that you said?”
I said, “Peace.” From the look on their faces, I imagined they were thinking we said some conspiratorial message or something.
But it just means peace.
I think that’s a good segue to the conversation we’re having. Ambassador Ahmed, thank you for your excellent book and your work to advance human knowledge and understanding. It’s very important, timely work, and I applaud you for it. I want to confess I’ve only gotten halfway through your book, but I’m going to continue reading it. They’ve had me on a tough schedule recently. But I did enjoy the book so far, and I have a few ideas I’d like to share.
First is that I absolutely agree with the premise that the Muslim world, if the American portion of it is any reflection, does feel a large degree of vulnerability. But at the same time, Muslim Americans feel very much American. If you believe the Pew research report recently, 71 percent of American Muslims believe that if you work hard, you can make it here. In the United States, we have reports from time to time that some people who happen to be Muslim are up to no good, but they’re remarkable for the fact that they’re exceptions and don’t reflect what the vast majority of American Muslims really feel. My experience with American Muslims is that they’re hopeful, they’re eager, and they’re ready to jump into the deep water of American politics. In the post-9/11 world, many who were previously focused on their own community life, their own profession, their own business, their own education, have now understood that that’s a luxury the Muslim community can no longer afford. So the community has a growing awareness of the importance of civic engagement, and I see that all around here every day.
As I read the book, a few thoughts kept striking me. One is that the idea of Muslims feeling under siege can’t really be separated from our colonial past. You have to understand that many of the parts of the world we’re talking about were once colonial possessions of European countries. But before that, they had a tremendously great civilization, history, and culture that they’re proud of. As I think about Iran today, and some of the tension escalating between our country and theirs, I keep on thinking to myself, “We’d better keep in mind that these folks are the Persians, and that they ran this place for a while.” They feel pretty good about who they were, the history they have, and they’re aware of it. That is true for the Muslim Arab world as well.
Our fortunes have been on the rise for a while and are doing pretty good now. But as the United States, which is a little more than 200 years old, interacts with the rest of the world, while, it’s very important we have a sense of cultural humility, understanding that the Muslim world gave us algebra, nautical sciences, and so many important things we take for granted today. The fact that we can go to these places and dominate them doesn’t mean that these are not proud, noble, great, highly intelligent, very sensitive people – though I think some of our approach suggests otherwise.
It’s critically important that the United States continue to build its capacity to reach out culturally, socially and linguistically, to not just the Muslim world but to the rest of the world as well. The term kinetic solution was used earlier; it’s funny because just this morning I heard the phrase. The point that person was making was that about 20 percent of the problem is kinetic – bombs, guns, stuff like that – and 80 percent of the problem is building cultural bridges. Yet we put, I guess, 80 percent of our energy into that 20 percent and 20 percent of our energy into the 80 percent, and maybe it’s not even that charitable. Maybe I’m giving us more credit than we should get.
Now there are good reasons for this approach. We’re coming out of our own Cold War legacy. We think of warfare in terms of territory with two sides squaring off, and there’s a line, and we’re going to fight them and take some territory. That’s how we understand warfare, even though we do not live in an era in which warfare is played out that way. We need to reconceive of how to deal with an opponent who is not so much fighting over territory as they are fighting to impose a world view. It is much more of a fight about hearts and minds than it ever was, yet our “weaponry” to win hearts and minds is behind what’s needed for the time we live in.
I’d be very much in favor of having young people come from various countries in the Middle East to the United States, to see what it really is all about, to see that it’s much more than just a TV, pop, commercial culture, that it’s diverse, that, in many ways, America is an ideal place for Muslims. Let me tell you why. For Muslims, the Koran tells us we don’t play games of chance, drink, or – what else don’t we do, guys? (Laughter.) We’ve got a list.
UNIDENTIFIED: Eat certain foods.
ELLISON: Eat pork, thank you. But in America, if you’re Muslim, you can do all those things if that’s what you really want to do. Your faith is on the honor system, and that allows you to practice your faith in a whole new way. It has to mean something to you. Nobody with prayer beads is going to hit you on the ankles because they’re showing, which happens in some places on the globe. It allows for a whole new way to embrace your faith.
If you’re wearing a hijab, you’re got to want to wear it. In France, you can’t wear one if you’re going to the public school, which is interesting, because, in some ways, we think of Europe as more liberal and enlightened than we are. But the United States has something to teach the rest of the world about religious tolerance. And that’s something for a left-oriented liberal to say, by the way – (laughter) – but I really believe we have some things to teach the rest of the world about religious tolerance.
My own experience, as the first person of the Muslim faith in Congress, has been interesting in many ways. I almost never bring it up; somebody always brings it up for me. (Laughter.)
But I will say I’ve been extremely well treated. People always ask me, “How did you deal with those people criticizing you, and the letters you received, and wasn’t it awful when Glenn Beck said what he said to you?” The fact is, those are very minor, isolated incidents compared to the greater part of my experience in the first six months of my congressional service.
Overwhelmingly, people in Congress are curious and want to know. That goes for both sides of the aisle; I’ve had meetings with Republicans and Democrats. In fact – and I hope this doesn’t make my Democratic friends feel uncomfortable – it seems like some Republican members are a little more curious Islam and how we can have a better understanding of it. It seems like they’re a little bit more interested. Maybe [the Democrats] take me for granted because I’m on their side already. But I’ve had excellent treatment so far, even when I express views that I think are contrary to what people thought already. For example, somebody said to me, “You’re a moderate Muslim.” I said, “I’m not a moderate Muslim. Islam is moderate. So to call me a moderate Muslim is like calling me a moderate moderate person.” (Laughter.) Islam is all about balance.
Here’s another example. “People like you should say more against those jihadis.” And I say, “I hate to tell you this, but jihad’s a good thing in Islam.” I explained to somebody that Martin Luther King was on a jihad when he was fighting against segregation. It is a struggle in the way of Allah; it’s the internal struggle to master yourself and the external struggle to try to establish something good and right. Neither Muslims nor non-Muslims should allow people to cover their wicked deeds with the legitimacy of Islam. They should have that veneer stripped off of them and be called what they are, which is the misguided.
I’m about to stop talking now, really. (Laughter.) It is interesting how the Saudis approach this issue. The Saudis do something similar to what was already mentioned about [terror suspects.] They have a sort of re-education for some of these individuals who engage in these desperate acts. They don’t call these folks jihadis; they call them “the misguided.” And in Islam, to call someone misguided – for those of you who are not Muslim – there’s a lot more weight on that phrase than you might know. We believe that if Allah guides you, then you can’t be guided wrongly, and if Allah does not guide you, you cannot be guided aright. So to say that you’re misguided is to say that you’re without the sanction, the support of the divine, which is to say quite a bit in the Muslim mind.
I think they’ve got the language down. I think we should listen to what they have to tell us about how to deal with extremism. This book is a tremendously helpful step forward in this conversation. I just want to thank you for allowing me to participate. I do apologize for being late; I have an excuse, but I’ll save it for later. (Laughter.)
GRAND: Thank you, Congressman. (Applause.) Thank you for sharing those very personal observations with us. Ambassador Ahmed, do you want to respond to Congressman Ellison?
AMBASSADOR AHMED: Congressman, I hope you continue reading the book, because in the second half, we mention when you were being interviewed on television after your historic victory, and [CNN's Glenn Beck] asked, “Are you with us or with the terrorists?” It’s assumed that any Muslim automatically would be with the terrorists. That is exactly what we are up against. It’s not a question of prejudice against a race or a people or a religion. It’s really ignorance and stereotyping and prejudices deep inside ourselves. It is a fundamental challenge to all of us.
I completely agree with the congressman: America is an ideal place for Muslims. You mustn’t forget that some of the greatest heroic figures in the world of Islam are Americans. Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are huge names in the Muslim world. Steve Cohen had pointed out, and again I think it’s relevant to underline, that in the Muslim world, while the diplomats may have a problem of engaging with the ordinary people, no Muslim fails to respond to the ideas and ideals of the founding fathers of this great country. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington – the ideals they had in mind for this nation called the United States of America are ideals that are deeply Islamic and immediately create a positive response in the Muslim world. This is important to hold on to.
Therefore, the idea that we talk to certain people and don’t talk to other people is, I believe, a flawed strategy. It is flawed simply because the emotions right now in the Muslim world, as you see in the book, are so – The graph is almost touching the ceiling right now, in terms of anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and the sense of irrational anger. But it can be challenged, as we’ve shown on this journey that we undertook.
His Excellency, the Moroccan ambassador, reflected that it’s not only in one part of the Muslim world that these feelings exist. These feelings are global; they exist throughout the Muslim world. On this journey, we visited Deoband [Islamic seminary], the most orthodox Islamic center in South Asia. It’s so famous that the name is equated with the Wahhabi movement in the Middle East. We were being escorted by Mufti Aijaz [Arshad Qasmi,] a leading ideologue, writer and website editor, who was extremely hostile to the idea of Americans and Israelis. As the congressman pointed out, we need to be conscious of stereotypes on both sides. This was probably the first time Aijaz had ever encountered Americans.
These young Americans, Frankie and Hailey, and I went to the mosques and classes. Frankie and Hailey sat facing an audience like you – perhaps not as clean shaven as you, but certainly a huge audience, all young men – at the end of it, they were able to convey the idea of friendship and dialogue. When the two were asked to write a message on the blackboard, they wrote a message of peace, which immediately touched the young men. Hailey wrote, “As salaamu alaikum.” Can you imagine? These orthodox young men in the Deoband, who had never met an American before, suddenly saw a young American writing, as salaamu alaikum, reaching out to them through their culture. They immediately responded to that.
We have pictures in the book where Frankie was actually mobbed; they had their arms around him. Of course when we see bearded young men with their arms around Americans, we all get a bit nervous – (laughter) – but these were all beaming faces. They were saying, “When are you coming back?” and “We would love to keep in touch with you.”
By the end of the journey, the same young man, Aijaz, asked me, “Can I translate your book, Islam under Siege into Urdu?” Now, this book is dedicated to Professor Lawrence Rosen at Princeton – a Jewish professor and a very old friend of mine; he is a very distinguished anthropologist and one of the first MacArthur fellows. This book is based on the need for dialogue and friendship and understanding. Now, just think of the sea change, the oil tanker in the ocean changing its direction. Aijaz started our conversation talking about his book, called Jihad and Terrorism, in which he talks about American and Israeli barbarism and almost justifies the killing of innocent women and children in the cause of Islam because Islam is under attack. By the end of our journey, a week down the road, he shifted his position, and is now committed to dialogue, understanding, and bridge building.
This is the change we need to be moving toward. Beyond our normal lives as scholars and academics and policy planners, we need to be aware we are living in an interconnected world, where everything we do has an impact. If Keith Ellison has this conversation with some TV host, it’s not only Americans watching; the whole world is watching; the Muslim world is watching. Muslims are judging us as we are judging them.
When we see the murder and mayhem in the Muslim world, we say, “They’re all anarchic, they’re all terrorists.” When the Muslim world watches us, and they see the first Muslim congressman being treated like this, they are shocked and appalled. They say, “This is what you are doing to your own native Muslim. He’s not an immigrant; he’s not coming from the Middle East or South Asia. He’s from your own soil, and yet he’s being treated like this.”
That is why I go back to the founding fathers and the challenge Americans face in the 21st century. If Americans can be more American, more conscious of the great vision of the founding fathers, of Jefferson and Franklin and Washington – If America can revive that dream, then the world will respond to America; the world will love America. But if America does not, then I’m afraid we’re seeing the situation in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and we’ll be seeing it unfortunately in many, many other places. With that plea, once again, for dialogue, friendship, and understanding – Steve, back to you.
GRAND: Thank you. Congressman Ellison?
ELLISON: Thank you. I want to agree that the dialogue I had with Glenn Beck was – I laugh about it now, but it was highly insulting and offensive to a lot of people. At the time, I just thought it was an absurd, ridiculous thing that he asked. Of course, he does speak for a number of people, but he doesn’t speak for everybody. For example, if you saw how he was lampooned on [Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" with] Jon Stewart – did anybody see that? He was essentially ridiculed for what he said. Keith Olbermann, on CNN, called him “the worst person in the world” that very night. (Laughter.)
My point is that – and I think the professor and I agree on this – the world sees what Glenn Beck said, but it’s also important that the world know there are large swaths of Americans of all faiths, colors, and cultures who reject what he said. That part needs to be known by the world, too. It’s important that the United States project its diversity of views and let the rest of the world know some of us just laugh or cry when somebody says something like he did.
GRAND: One of the great powers of the book you’ve written, Ambassador Ahmed, is that it defies the stereotypes many Americans have of some distant, foreign, maybe inhuman, homogenous religion that they don’t understand. The book shows in a very compelling way the great richness, the great diversity, and the great debates within Islam today.
Now we’ll take questions from the audience.
COLIN BRADFORD, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Akbar, I’ve only read half of your book as well, but –
AMBASSADOR AHMED: I’m not happy with this tendency – (laughter) – it’s the congressman and now you. What’s happening? No one’s finishing my book. (Laughter.)
BRADFORD: You’ve outlined well the spirit in which reaching out needs to take place. It’s helpful as we think about the next 50 years, and how we can ground truth these approaches in terms of specific global issues, and you mention some in the book. But, from a Muslim point of view, as opposed to a Western point of view, are there two or three issues you think are particularly appropriate for us to focus on, which would enhance the understanding, compassion and cooperation between the West and the Muslim world?
AMBASSADOR AHMED: Thank you, Colin, that’s a very important question. According to our own findings from this trip, not surprisingly, the number one issue is the feeling in the Muslim world that Islam is under attack. This is largely an emotional issue, but there are also substantial issues behind it. We cannot avoid them. There is the issue of Palestine and Israel; that problem has to be solved. We all pray that that problem is solved because there is constant killing, and now you’re seeing anarchy within Palestinian society. This needs to be resolved because Muslims who see this across the world say, “For half a century, Palestine is not solved; Kashmir is not solved; the Chechen problem is not solved; the Balkans were inflamed for a decade.” Eighty percent of the refugee population of the world comes from the Muslim world.
These are the substantive issues, and we can’t simply say, “Let’s have dialogue, we’re all friends, and the issues will go away.” They won’t go away unless we begin to say, “Let’s try to solve the core issues; we can’t solve them sitting over here.” Muslim leaders have to be involved in this dialogue, and I would point the finger of blame largely at Muslim leaders themselves. Very often, they are more interested in clinging to power, using all kinds of tricks to just stay on, rather than solving their own issues. The growing gap between the rich and the poor; growing corruption; populations exploding; urbanization; the imbalance between the rural and the urban – all these issues are facing the Muslim world.
These are also issues that leaders who interact with the Muslim world need to be concerned with. Certainly Muslim leaders themselves need to be concerned. Your Excellency, do you want to comment on the Muslim point of view?
AMBASSADOR MEKOUAR: As I said, the biggest feeling around the Muslim world is the feeling of being under siege, even among those who don’t have many problems.
But I would like to ask you a question about this globalization issue. My sense is the gap between the rich and the poor, between the cities and the rural areas – What’s happening today in the Muslim world is you have groups of people feeling that the train of globalization is leaving the station, and they are not prepared or trained to be on the train. They are scared to be left in the station, and so they try to keep the train in the station. Did you find that to be true during your journey?
The second thing is everybody says that in the Muslim world, you have problems, like terrorism. By the way, terrorism is happening in the Muslim world much more than in the Western world; everybody says this but we have to stress it all the time. But, at the same time, the economy is doing very well in most of the Muslim and Arab world, and that’s very interesting. It’s strange to see you have this phenomenon of violence at the same time as you have a stronger economy. But if you look back at what happened in Europe in the 1960s and the 1970s, for instance, you had more or less the same problem: the societies were becoming richer, but at the same time you had Red Brigades and – (inaudible) – et cetera. Did you feel the same thing?
AMBASSADOR AHMED: Very interesting questions, Your Excellency, thank you. Globalization is not something we can dismiss or engage simplistically. For Tom Friedman, the world is flat. We found in our journey that the world is not flat; there are ravines and mountains and valleys because there are tribes and cultures who want to hold onto their traditions. We found that a lot of people, exactly as you say, are feeling that this train of globalization is moving out of the station, and they are not on it. We talked to many young men and women in the Muslim world who said, “We are educated, we work hard, and we can’t get jobs.” Sometimes they say, “We can’t get jobs just because of our Muslim names.” This feeds into the sense of, perhaps, “We’re being discriminated against because of our religion.”
Globalization itself is complex because while it has many problems associated with it – particularly this division of the few very rich and the mass very poor – at the same time we saw after the tsunami in Indonesia or the earthquake in Pakistan how very quickly the United States spearheaded massive relief, turning up with helicopters and all kinds of support systems. That immediately created tremendous good will for the United States. So globalization has plusses and minuses. But, yes, I would say that in many parts of Africa and Asia, the majority of people are feeling they have been left out of the process; that they may not be able to board the train.
GRAND: There’s a question here from the audience.
SEAN DAVIS: Could you say a little more about authority and the legitimization of authority in the Muslim world?
AMBASSADOR AHMED: The question of authority and legitimacy is related to who speaks for Islam and is something I’ve been fascinated with since my days on campus as a student doing a B.A. I grew up in the Max Weberian tradition of identifying three kinds of authority.
What we see today in the Muslim world is constant internal debate about who represents legitimate authority.
The colonial era brought a break with the historical narrative of a purely Islamic history. Into the 20th century, many of the leaders were both traditional leaders, based on their lineage, but also nationalist leaders; they combined the two roles, like the King of Morocco. In many other societies, however, a new kind of leader emerged. In the Middle East, for example, you had so-called “socialist” leaders, such as Saddam Hussein or Hafez al-Asad of Syria. Then, you have traditional clerics, the imams and mullahs, in Muslim societies.
What you’re seeing in the Muslim world now is the constant interaction among these authorities claiming legitimacy. It gets complicated with globalization because for the first time ever the ordinary Muslim has access to the sources of legitimacy in Islam. He can go onto his computer and look up the actual Koranic verses for a particular issue. This he did not have access to 20 or 30 years ago; he had to go to a religious authority. He also has access to the politics of that region and information about religious and political figures.
There is a crisis in contemporary role models and a constant yearning for the ideal, a yearning to go back to the time of the prophet. The prophet becomes so important for Muslims as a kind of anchor or mooring, because he is the ultimate role model, as a father, son, husband, scholar, leader in prayer, and leader on the battlefield.
If we want to understand Islam, we need to understand this early ideal that exists in Muslim society. It’s not simply a question of looking at role models like presidents or kings today; we have to look at them in the context of Muslim history, culture and social frameworks.
TALIB KARIM: I’m a civil rights lawyer here in Washington, and I’m grateful for this conversation. Congressman Ellison mentioned some of the early technological contributions the Muslim world gave to humanity. A lot of the policy discussions now about the Middle East or Africa or other places in the Islamic world have the idea that those populations need to borrow from the United States. What policies existing within the Islamic world could benefit the American world?
One of the amazing things I saw in a Muslim country was the amount of empathy and respect for the elders. I once had a funny occasion when I was standing outside of a hospital and saw everybody lining up; I thought maybe they were going to give blood and get money. In fact, the people were lining up because it was visitation hours. Here in the United States people line up like that to go a nightclub. They were lining up to visit not only their family members, but also their neighbors.
ELLISON: I think it’s a great question. Is the exchange all one way? Does the Muslim world have everything to learn from the West? Can we have some interchange? I agree with you, Talib; in my brief travels in the Middle East – and they have been brief, like one time – I was very impressed by how people seemed to care for each other, how hospitable they were, and how people who were pressed to the wall economically were willing to share.
I do think we should think in terms of an exchange, in terms of what the Muslim world has to offer. Of course, here in America, the Muslim world has offered a whole lot of nurses and doctors and high tech professionals – (chuckles) – just in terms of immigration. But from a cultural standpoint, it’s also very important to raise that question. So thank you for raising it. I wish I had a more definitive answer for you, but that’s my experience.
AMBASSADOR AHMED: Yes, Mr. Karim, I do want to respond to your very important question. In spite of all the problems right now in the Muslim world, which is going through a period of some turmoil, we found on the journey that Muslims were so incredibly hospitable. This was amazing throughout the Middle East, the Arab world, South Asia, Far East Asia. Wherever we went, people wanted to give us dinner or lunch, even when they may not have agreed with what we were saying. Sometimes when I was asked to speak, I’d give examples of my Jewish friends, my Christian friends, and it was probably the first time they were hearing the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Sir Jonathan Sacks, who I admire immensely, being quoted to Muslim audiences. Yet with great respect, they’d listen. I’d introduce my American team; they’d respond to them warmly and insist on showing us that same classic hospitality.
One high point for us came in Pakistan. We were flying from Islamabad to Delhi, and we had literally an hour-and-a-half [before our flight.] The former prime minister of Pakistan said, “You must have lunch with me at the chief minister’s residence.” My team started getting very nervous. Hadia said, “It’s not physically possible.” She was right. You can’t come from the airport to the chief minister’s house, have lunch, and come back in time for your international flight. And, I shouldn’t be mentioning this, but young Frankie Martin had lost his ticket. (Laughter.) Frankie, you may want to tell them how you got on that plane without a ticket. (Laughter.) Pakistanis are capable of being very effective when they want to be. (Laughter.)
So here we are, en route to Delhi with an international flight, and the chief minister’s protocol officers are waiting to put us in cars with police escorts to take us straight through the traffic of Islamabad. We have a grand lunch in a room with Mughal paintings around us. You can imagine these young American students – Hailey had the prime minister on her right, the chief minister on her left, and she was just chatting with them. I was getting very nervous about the flight, and I said, “Prime minister, don’t you think we should be off now?” And he said, “No, no, that plane can’t just take off – (laughter.)” Hadia was saying, “This couldn’t happen in America – (laughter.)” When we did leave, the prime minister gave each member of the team a carpet as a gesture of Pakistani hospitality.
Those little things made a tremendous impact on the team, and that goes back to the point I made, that you are dealing with ordinary human beings. We may be different from them. We may not agree with them in terms of their politics. But ultimately, we are all sharing this planet. That sense came through to us in the vitality and hospitality we encountered in the Muslim world.
COHEN: Let me enter, if not a dissenting, at least an alternative explanation, because I think there’s some confusion in terminology. Akbar, you made your trip to the Islamic world – a term I still don’t understand – to countries that happen to be Muslim or in which most of the population is Muslim. But had you gone to, say, the Latin American world or the Indian world or the Chinese world – essentially to any traditional society – you would have gotten much the same response. I think you have to distinguish, Mr. Karim, between a modern society and a traditional society.
Most Islamic societies have very strong family, tribal and cultural units. What we have in America is very powerful support for the individual. There’s a real clash between American individualism, which is built into our Constitution and way of life, and a traditional way of organizing a society in which the group has more rights. In America, groups have rights, but individuals have more powerful rights. That’s one of the fundamental clashes between America and the so-called Islamic world, but also between America and traditional societies everywhere. Traditional societies can’t figure out how to deal with a country that allows so much individual expression and freedom. They think it’s lascivious; it’s extreme; it’s unbridled individualism. I do, too, at times.
But we’d look at traditional societies and say, “You have conformity, you have group think; individuals don’t have freedom to do this or that.” That’s a deep cultural debate, not necessarily between America and Islam, but between America and traditional societies. When individuals of non-Muslim traditional societies come here, they have the same problems Muslims do.
AMBASSADOR AHMED: Steve, you’re absolutely right. In fact, using words like “Islam” and “the West” is something that makes me very uncomfortable. As I wrote in the book’s introduction, I’m using these words for lack of a better alternative. It really is almost meaningless when you say “the world of Islam” or “journey into Islam.” But sometimes, it’s just a catch-all phrase, an expression of something you want to convey and therefore hope the reader will pick up.
But your point about other traditional societies responding in similar ways is absolutely correct. When we were in India, for example, we were with Hindus and Sikhs, and their hospitality and warmth was almost better than many of our Muslim hosts, because that is traditional culture. We were received at the airport in Delhi, inside immigration, by the mother of one of my former students from American University whom Dean Goodman knows very well. Her son had become our research assistant in India, so he was with us throughout the trip, and his mother looked after us like family. She took the girls shopping, from time to time accompanied us to campuses, and helped arrange our trips. On the last night, the family gave us a very warm send off by giving us traditional Indian food in their own home.
So yes, Steve, you’re absolutely right. Perhaps we have less time in these modern post-industrial societies. Perhaps the social contract changes completely. But we saw a side of the world I value and respect a great deal.
GRAND: Because we are running out of time, I’m not going to be able to show our audience the hospitality I would like to. We will just take three questions and then give it back to the panel just to finish up.
FRANK DALL, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I’m an international educator. I just finished many years of work on Middle Eastern educational systems. If we move into what the heart of this book suggests, which is a need for cultural dialogue, I think the crux of the matter is educational reform. If I look at all the Middle Eastern education systems, as I did for seven years for UNICEF, I find a mismatch between what Islamic tradition wants in education and what Muslims feel they need for the modernizing world. We miss within Islamic education – certainly formal public education – elements that would bring understanding and encourage the dialogue future generations need if we want this world to work in a more harmonious way.
Are Arab and Islamic countries ready for a real educational reform and for a radical look at educational systems, or is this something that nobody really wants to touch? The heart of the future is how children learn, what they learn, and how they learn to understand the differences we’re talking about. Nowhere in Islamic education that I know of – and I’ve been to schools in 22 Arab and non-Arab countries – do I see an attempt to teach about religions other than Islam, if Islam is taught at all.
That being said, I will note we don’t do that here in the U.S. either because we don’t teach religions in schools. But comparative religion, from a historical perspective, might help us down this path we’re going to be treading in the future. Thank you.
ALY ABUZAAKUK: Professor Ahmed, when you were asking people about their modern role models, not their historic ones, what did you discover, especially because some of them live under abusive regimes, in which democracy and freedom of expression is not prevalent?
LISA LIVINGOOD: Thank you. Professor Ahmed, I was a student, as you know. I have three questions, and even if you don’t get to answer them, I need you to think about them because of the work I’m currently doing. First of all, the congressman and Professor Ahmed both mentioned the difficulty with language and, if the Brookings Institute is not already addressing this, I would suggest we desperately need a lexicon of how words should be used, how they’re interpreted in the Muslim world, and a way forward for our State Department and our military, so that we have a clear unified understanding.
The second is for Professor Cohen, Dr. Ahmed and the congressman regarding AFRICOM [the newly created U.S. military command in Africa]. It’s a new way forward; it’s currently under creation. I am wondering what your involvement is; if you’re not involved, you should be because the approach is non-kinetic. As a follow-on for you, congressman, what support is there for the reapportioning of money away from kinetic solutions into security cooperation and programs like the [Department of Defense's] humanitarian [aid program called] OHDACA [Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster and Civic Aid.] Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR AHMED: Yes, Frank, there is, of course, debate [within] Islam. It isn’t that the Muslims are fast asleep. If you read the book, we have some very detailed interviews about education, because education, as Steve pointed out, is at the core of the Islamic vision. Here’s the great paradox: every Muslim is aware how important ‘ilm, or knowledge, is in Islam. The saying of the prophet that the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr is so significant that it could change the course of Muslim history today, if Muslims practiced it, or if the West understood that this is what Muslims need to be reminded about, not throwing bombs on them, but reminding them what Islam wants for itself.
We have a very detailed interview with [Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf on reform of the madrassa, which is really an eye-opener. His dilemma – and I think it’s a genuine dilemma – is this: he said, “I’m under pressure from the Americans, but the Americans just don’t understand what a madrassa is; to them, it’s a nursery for terrorists. So they’re saying close them, close them. But if I close the madrassas, I’ll have millions of young boys out on the streets and in the hills, and some of them may end up being violent, defeating the purpose of why you’re closing them in the first place.” So he said, “I am trying to reform them.” Now, whether he has time, whether he can do it, is a separate issue, but this is what he’s concerned with, as are Muslims throughout the Muslim world, because what Muslim parents want, above all, is a normal education for their children. It’s a Koranic duty. You must understand it’s not just a civic duty for a Muslim to educate their children; it’s a Koranic duty. They’re aware that their societies, in their present conditions, are not allowing them to fulfill that duty.
To the second question, which is an awkward one, I will refer to my assistant Jonathan Hayden’s visit to the campus of an Indonesian Islamic university. He asked these young girls, who, incidentally, mobbed him later on and asked him whether he’s married or not – (laughter) – because he’s a handsome young man from Alabama. So they asked him, “Are you married?” and he asked them, “Who do you look up to as a role model?” What surprised him and us was that Osama bin Laden reemerged.
Now, please note, this is in Jakarta, thousands of miles away from the passions of the Middle East. Osama has reemerged in Indonesia, which has traditionally been dominated by a more pacifist, mystic, scholarly kind of Islam. Islam was brought to Indonesia not by warriors, but by scholars and mystics. But percentage-wise, the number was substantial. Sixty percent of the students said Osama bin Laden was number one as their role model. We felt, “Here is a sleeping giant, the largest Muslim nation on earth. It is stirring, and we need to be aware of this.”
Lisa Livingood asked two or three interesting questions about the need to redefine things, and create a lexicon, and I completely agree we need to come to terms with this because it will not do for the nation’s capital, the greatest power on earth, to be so sloppy in terms of defining one of the world’s great religions and a religion with which the United States has to, simply as an imperative, be interacting with. It just won’t do to call them Islamofascists or some new term invented by some analyst sitting in some little office somewhere in some think tank. (Laughter.)
UNIDENTIFIED: Not this think tank, of course.
AMBASSADOR AHMED: With all due apologies, that wasn’t Freudian or intentional or anything. (Laughter.)
GRAND: Congressman Ellison, on the question of redirecting some funds towards more humanitarian and cultural missions, anything you want to say on that?
ELLISON: Politicians are always a little slow on the draw, but it is something I’m absolutely for and am speaking up for on a regular, consistent basis. I think you’re going to find more and more legislators open to the conversation. But we need the help of institutions like Brookings to help these folks see that we need to put more energy into cooperation, dialogue, language and things like that. It definitely has some good prospects. If you look at this last Department of Defense appropriation and at the ones coming up this summer, I would bet we’re still doing things the way we were doing them years ago; we’re relying on people like yourself to help turn us around.
GRAND: So a great engagement with the Muslim world, if we can coin a phrase.
ELLISON: Yes, a great engagement, but also American citizens engaging their Congress saying, “Look, pulling together missile systems designed to fight the Soviets are not what we need in the modern era. We need a new way of doing business.” But now you’re talking jobs; now you’re talking communities; now you’re talking military bases. The reason this big ocean liner is hard to turn is that the old way of doing things is deeply ingrained in our economy and communities, some of whom depend on making that Soviet-style defense system. But we’ve got to make the change. Our security depends upon it, and our relationship with the rest of the world does too.
AMBASSADOR MEKOUAR: I have sent American religious people, from the Christian community, to Morocco. They were quite reluctant, in the beginning, to go to the Muslim world. But they went, and they came back, and they said, “Those are the real Christians.” And I had some Muslim scholars come here, who met with American Christians. They came to me afterwards and told me, “Those are the real Muslims.” (Laughter.) I’d like to finish with this point.
COHEN: I like the idea of a lexicon. I’m involved in a National Academy of Science project that is translating Chinese and American terms on nuclear war. An Arabic or Urdu language web-based reference, where scholars get together and agree on definitions of particular terms, would be a very useful thing to have. Brookings would be delighted to do it, if you give us the money. (Laughter.)
As for the congressman’s remark about reprogramming things – after the Cold War, some minor efforts were made. One of my sons got a Ph.D. studying foreign languages and is now an Islamist scholar at American University. So a little bit was done, but not nearly enough. The ocean liner moved one degree over, but it really needs a major, major change of course because I don’t think we have the kind of expertise we need. The State Department and other American institutions that deal with foreign policy have a shortage of highly trained people.
GRAND: Thank you, Steve. In closing, I’d like to ask four people to stand up, and those are the young researchers who accompanied Ambassador Ahmed on his trip, because I think everyone’s curious. (Applause.) They are Hadia Mubarak, Hailey Woldt, Frankie Martin and Jonathan Hayden.
AMBASSADOR AHMED: The best ambassadors for America.
GRAND: On behalf of the Brookings Institution, let me thank the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and American University for their partnership in this important endeavor. I’d like to thank Ambassador Akbar Ahmed for his leadership on this project and the product that came out of it, this book. Thank you to Congressman Keith Ellison and Ambassador Mekouar for joining us today, and thank you to Steve Cohen as well. Thank you to all of you for coming out this afternoon to hear our panel.
This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar by Andrea Useem.