Dr Akbar Ahmad is a man of many parts. Civil servant, diplomat, author, filmmaker (creator of the biopic Jinnah) and teacher, he has also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. Currently Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and Professor of International Relations at the American University in Washington, it is his extraordinary insight into Muslim societies around the world and contribution as a scholar of Islam that truly set him apart from his tribe.
Distinguished author of such groundbreaking books as Postmodernism and Islam, Predicament and Promise (1992), Living Islam — From Samarkand to Stornoway (1993), Discovering Islam, Making Sense of Muslim History and Society (2002), and Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World (2002) that came out in the tumultuous post-9/11 era to underscore the pacifist and humanist teachings of Islam, he is a living and walking encyclopedia on contemporary Muslim societies.
Given the unprecedented double-edged challenge of extremism and Islamophobia facing Islam and Muslims, it is only natural that Professor Ahmad has constantly written and spoken about it, analysing often for the benefit of western audiences the underlying causes and historical drivers of violence and radicalisation, as he most recently did in The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013).
When he is not writing tomes like Living Islam — perhaps the most defining book on the issue in the last decade of the millennium — he is engaged in leading ‘hearts-and-minds’ missions and initiatives like Journey Into America and Journey Into Europe with his team of students and researchers and even family members, including his academic daughter Dr Amineh A Hoti.
Close on the heels of his critically-acclaimed Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (Brookings, 2007), Professor Ahmad and his team travelled for a year through more than 75 cities across the United States — from New York City to Salt Lake City; from Las Vegas to Miami; from the large Muslim enclave in Dearborn, Michigan, to predominantly white towns like Arab, Alabama. The result was the milestone called, Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam.
They visited homes, schools, and over one hundred mosques to see first-hand how Muslims live, think and work every day in America and have enriched and contributed to the American dream. The most comprehensive study ever done on the 8 million strong US Muslim community, Journey into America seeks to place the Muslim experience in the US within the larger context of American identity.
And right now he is in the midst of his most ambitious mission and study project aimed at the continent that has in the past few years attracted extraordinary numbers of Muslim refugees from across the Middle East and around the world.
The initiative, Journey Into Europe, had been launched at the height of the continent’s refugee crisis, when scenes of tens of thousands of Syrian and Middle Eastern refugees marching to Europe overwhelmed the continent, raising the spectre of what many saw as a “new Islamic invasion of the Christian continent”.
So this has both been a courageous attempt to assuage those fears and concerns of the Europeans as well as objectively study the history and place of Islam and Muslims in modern Europe and the future of this civilisational engagement.
As part of the project, Dr Ahmad and his team have been exploring the length and breadth of the continent, observing the influence and impact of Muslims and Islam on the white, predominantly Christian continent.
Along the way, we hear from some of Europe’s most prominent figures — presidents and prime ministers, archbishops, chief rabbis, grand muftis, politicians and everyday people from a variety of backgrounds. Incredibly insightful and fascinating as always, the study deals with themes of migration, faith, identity and acceptance and are critically relevant to understanding a fast-changing western civilisation.
As part of exploring the origins and reasons of the refugee influx from the Middle East and the historical Islam-West conflict that precedes it, he tries to shine the light on the many challenges confronting Muslim societies with clinical accuracy and academic objectivity. At the same time, he also points out that much of the violence that we see emanating from the Middle East is an inevitable consequence of the violence directed against the Islamic world.
He may not be the first scholar to argue that Muslims are the chief victims of terrorism, but he has certainly been one of the most persuasive proponents of the argument. On the other hand, through his writings, Professor Ahmad has repeatedly tackled the challenging experience of being a Muslim in the West in these extraordinary times.
In sync with the rise of monsters like Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), we have been seeing an alarming rise of the Right, both in Europe and America, mainstreaming hate and intolerance like never before. It is hardly a coincidence that the rise of politicians like United States President Donald Trump, French National Front leader Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, and their rhetoric equating Islam with terror has seen an alarming spurt in attacks on Muslims and even those looking like Muslims in the West.
Intolerance towards Muslims has become the new normal with the faithful being forced off planes for crimes such as “sweating” and saying “Allah” and sometimes for no reason at all. Being a believer seems to be reason enough.
It’s not difficult to imagine how critical and challenging the role becomes for peacemakers such as Professor Ahmad, tirelessly working for dialogue and reconciliation between the West and Islam in such perilous times.
Unlike the likes of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, he has argued that conflict between the two great civilisations is avoidable and a better, more peaceful world is possible. Contrary to popular perception, the don reasons that Muslims around the world do not hate the West and are indeed looking “intensely” at America, expecting it to offer global leadership. He talks of “another America inspired by the vision of the founding fathers” and which is “balanced, respectful, literate and welcoming”.
Someone who has spent a lifetime analysing Muslim societies offers an interesting take on the rise of the Right in the West. Even as western wonks talk of an ideological war being waged for the “soul of Islam”, Dr Ahmad perceives an existential battle for the “soul of western modernity”.
Writing in Huffington Post, ahead of the US presidential election, he implored the Americans to work to bring their nation and the world together: “Those American leaders who are spreading hatred and prejudice need to understand the wounds they are ultimately inflicting on their own society. I believe each one of us has a duty to reach out and build bridges.”
And that is what he has been doing all his life. It goes without saying that all this is aimed at what the don calls “building bridges in an uncomfortable time”, between the followers of two great Abrahamic faiths who form nearly half of the world. Given the yawning gulf that currently exists between them, this is nothing short of a Herculean task. This may be the reason why the Prophet [PBUH] said, as often quoted by Professor Ahmad in his lectures and writings, that “the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr”.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist. Follow him on Twitter/@AijazZakaSyed.