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Five Years After 9/11, ’Dialogue’ with Islam Cause for Hope

Bethesda, Maryland

A native of Pakistan who served as his country’s high commissioner to Great Britain, Akbar Ahmed offers the unique perspective of an anthropologist who has lived in and studied both Islamic and Western cultures. The BBC has described him as “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam.” He is the principal investigator for the “Islam in the Age of Globalization” research project at the Brookings Institution, with support from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and American University.

The central thesis of Ahmed’s work is that dialogue is required to reduce conflict between the U.S. and Islam. For his traveling dialogues with Judea Pearl, the father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Ahmed was nominated as a 2005 finalist for Beliefnet’s “Most Inspiring Person of the Year” award.

Ahmed, 63, was interviewed in the living room of his home, just outside Washington, D.C.

For a contrasting view, see Five Years After 9/11, The Clash of Civilizations Revisited

Featuring: Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, professor of International Relations, American University, Washington, D.C. His books include After Terror: Promoting Dialogue among Civilizations (2005) and Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World (2003).

Interviewer: Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Editorial, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Where were you when you first heard of the Sept. 11 attacks and what went through your mind?

I was in class at American University, where I had just begun teaching, a few miles from the Pentagon. As the news started coming in, I began to see the look of shock and horror on the faces of my young students. At that moment, I realized very clearly, without hesitation, doubt or ambiguity, that the coming time would be the greatest challenge for me, both in a personal sense as a Muslim and as a scholar on campus, teaching Islam as a subject.

For the last decade I had been trying to create interfaith dialogue in the United Kingdom. I knew this would be challenging because, unlike the United Kingdom, the United States did not have a long history of interaction with the Muslim world. The United Kingdom, with its South Asian colonies and its colonies in the Muslim world, had already had this kind of experience. The relationship with Islam was negative and positive, but there was a lot of richness in that interaction. There was knowledge of the same books, languages and cultures, and there was even some affection in that interaction. But this was not the case with the United States.

This is the 10th anniversary of Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s influential book, The Clash of Civilizations, in which he predicted increasing conflict between civilizations, most notably Islam and the West. You have rejected his thesis, and co-authored a book, After Terror: Promoting Dialogue among Civilizations. In light of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, conflict in places such as Lebanon and the anti-Semitic and anti-American rhetoric we are hearing from the president of Iran, do you still reject the clash of civilizations paradigm?

I am a scholar. I don’t look at what is coherent, strong and historical, which is the idea of the clash of civilizations, and simply say it doesn’t exist, because that would not only be inaccurate and untrue, but it would not be cognitive. We have to take an idea and grapple with it, understand it, engage with it. The clash exists because it has existed for a thousand years, exactly as Huntington has stated. We have had the centuries of the Crusades and then of European colonization spanning over a thousand years of history, which has made for a complex and difficult relationship between Islam and the West.

But we have also had — this is my criticism of Huntington, because he leaves it out — great periods of harmony, cultural synthesis and interaction of ideas. For example, the entire corpus of Greek thinking of the great philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, lay unknown and forgotten until the Muslims translated them in Muslim Spain a thousand years ago and allowed Europeans to discover them in Arabic, translate them into Latin and from Latin they were translated into French and then English. Over the centuries, the process of rediscovering the Greeks came to Europe via the Muslims. This cycle, in turn, triggered the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment. When you talk about Jeffersonian ideals of the Enlightenment and Jefferson’s Greek heroes, we invariably omit the Muslim contribution to this cycle.

There was also the development, which Huntington missed in his thesis, of the mass migration of Muslims to the West in the past couple decades. I’m not talking about a couple thousand immigrants; I’m talking about millions of Muslims actually living, interacting with and becoming citizens of the West. For example, the United States has several million Muslims. It has included American and Muslim icons, such as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Rumi, the 13th century mystic poet, born in Afghanistan, is the number-one, best-selling poet of the United States. Americans love his mystic poetry of compassion and acceptance. Another historic fact: The first country in the world to recognize the United States of America was Morocco, a Muslim country. So it isn’t quite a clash of civilizations that has been going on. While there may be an element of clash, there is a larger element of synthesis, understanding and sporadic dialogue.

But, after 9/11, the right wing in the U.S. and the media have made Huntington’s thesis popular, and now, all over the world, people are talking about the clash of civilizations — Huntington’s clash. But to be accurate, we need to acknowledge that Bernard Lewis came up with the concept and Huntington picked it up from Lewis’ article. Moreover, people have been writing and talking about opposition between the West and Islam for a long time.

From February to April, you traveled with research assistants to nine Islamic countries and found that the emotional intensity of anti-Americanism is at an unprecedented high. What were people most upset about?

The intensity is extremely high, perhaps the highest levels of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism I have ever seen. We went to mosques and madrassas. I spoke at the Royal Institute in Amman. I met President Musharraf, as well as students and scholars. I really covered the full range of meetings, lectures and seminars. The negative feeling in the Muslim world against Americans and Jewish people is very acute.

People are extremely upset about several things: the ongoing crisis, as they see it, in the Muslim world, the crisis around the Palestinian-Israeli crisis and the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, they see an attack on Islam in the Western media, ridicule of the Prophet Muhammad, as in the Danish cartoons, for example, and the disrespect shown to the prophet when he is called a terrorist by people like Jerry Falwell. People in the Muslim world really believe that Islam is under attack.

In light of this perception that Islam is under attack, what type of Islamic leadership do you see emerging?

My analysis of the Muslim world reveals that there are three distinct kinds of leadership in play, completely missed by the West, missed by Huntington and missed by the analysts here who see the Muslim world more or less as a monolith.

The first kind of Muslim leader is the enduring and endearing model of the mystic Sufi. I’ll give you the example of Rumi, the most popular poet in the Muslim world. The second model is that of the modernist Muslim who wants to synthesize Islam with Western ideas. Muhammad Ali Jinnah is my favorite example because he founded Pakistan. He wanted to model Pakistan on Westminster democracy to include women’s rights, human rights and minority rights. He believed in a proper democracy and wanted to run Pakistan with respect for law and order, according to the constitution. This was in the 1940s. He dressed in Western suits and spoke English. Yet he was elected and adored by millions of Muslims who looked up to him as a leader of great integrity, courage and principles.

The third model is the Muslim who says, “We want to be exclusivist. We want to draw boundaries around Islam. Islam is being threatened and is in danger. We must the preserve the purity and tradition of Islam. We must go back to the time of the seventh century.” In this third model, you have a whole range of activity from the Taliban in Afghanistan to the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia.

Among these three models, there is clash, conflict and opposition. This is the reality on the ground of the Muslim world today; it is not just a 9/11 phenomenon. It has been taking place for the last two centuries and is now reaching a climax. It is being pushed and accelerated by the event following 9/11 — the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the scandals about the treatment of Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and the abuse of the prophet in these cartoons. It all feeds the perception that Islam is under attack and must fight back. These events encourage and reinforce not the mystic, not the modernist, but the exclusivist.

Why? Because when your own society is under attack and in crisis, and a Sufi shows up and says, “Let us talk about mystic love; I love Christians; I love Jews; we’re all part of the same human race,” they will respond: “What world are you living in? My house has just been blown up. My wife has been dishonored. My children have been killed. I want revenge. I want violence. I want to speak the language of an eye for an eye.”

If you’re a modernist, you say, “I’ll respond by writing a letter to The New York Times or hold a debate with the opposition.” They will respond, “This is not the time for civilized behavior!”

But if you are an exclusivist, you say, “Brother, they have killed your family and destroyed your home. Let me take revenge. I will inflict the same pain on them as they inflicted upon you.” This type of rhetoric, in turn, gains legitimacy in the Muslim world, because it addresses the core grievances of society. The aggrieved will then respond, “Praise be to God. You are my leader.”

United States policy should be directed toward supporting and encouraging the first two models because support for the exclusivist model has never been greater, mainly because of the growing anger and emotion now in the Muslim world.

Many Islamic terrorists in recent years have not been poor and uneducated, but highly educated with seemingly bright careers in front of them. Yet they choose what they consider martyrdom. What does this tell us?

It tells us that analysts of the West still think in terms of poverty as a factor in violent action. You look at the world through your own cultural context. In the United States, people talk about certain ethnic groups, and they claim these groups are more likely to be inclined toward crime. Then they impose this supposition on the Muslim world. It isn’t the case at all. In Islam Under Siege (2003), I argue that notions of honor and revenge — almost tribal traditions of taking revenge and redeeming honor — are driving a lot of these young men. And as you point out, many of them are educated and well off. Bin Laden is the classic example — a multi-millionaire, who could have lived a very comfortable life. But he is living in the caves somewhere, hiding, and leading, by all accounts, a very nomadic existence. Why is he doing this? Why are these young men blowing themselves up? Something is driving them that is beyond economic factors.

If you read bin Laden’s statements, you will find he is constantly using the word honor. He’s talking about American troops getting out of Saudi Arabia, but he’s also talking about the honor of Muslim peoples being violated. The words — honor and dignity — appeal to the entire Muslim world. A lot of Muslims will totally reject bin Laden’s violent methods. The vast majority would say they totally disagree when he says it’s acceptable to kill women and children, but they would identify with his sympathy for the loss of Muslim honor.

Even if they’re successful and affluent, they still have the sense that the world is not quite in control and they feel under siege. They feel their honor is being threatened. That’s why I use the title Islam Under Siege. And I argue that it’s not only Muslims feeling under siege. I argue that after 9/11 Americans also feel under siege. Israelis feel under siege, surrounded by the Arabs. It’s a time in history when several societies are feeling under siege.

You live in cosmopolitan Washington, D.C., a big, multicultural and multi-religious city. Many Americans don’t live in such a city. They may not even know a Muslim person. What can they do to promote the dialogue you are advocating?

My advice not only to Americans but to Muslims — is to make an effort to visit each other’s places of worship, to understand each other’s festivals. Muslims have several major festivals during the year. We have what is called Eid to end the month of fasting. We have a great celebration where we commemorate Abraham, a very respected figure in Islam. Once Christians and Jews begin to understand this common connection with Abraham, and Muslims in turn begin to understand something of Judaism and Christianity, friendships grow.

I would encourage Americans to visit Muslim homes, countries and their institutions. If you are an American living abroad, get out of your high-security, guarded compounds. Americans abroad are not very visible and that’s why they’re not very popular. Go out there as I did with my wonderful American students who joined me in mosques and madrassas. I saw the impact they made just being alone with 300 bearded men who would talk to them fearlessly and cordially on the carpet of the mosque. Within one or two hours, the entire atmosphere was changed to one of welcome.

You have traveled around North America with Judea Pearl, the father of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded by terrorists in your native land of Pakistan. What impact has this travel and dialogue with a Jewish man had on you, a Muslim?

It was a very difficult dialogue at first and a very uneasy one because I was aware that I would be sitting onstage and I would be seen as a symbol of a civilization that had produced the killers of Judea Pearl’s son, Danny Pearl, in Karachi, the city where I grew up. And yet the goodwill that Judea and I had toward each other, which was very apparent even early on, then blossomed into a friendship that helped us overcome the initial awkward patches of the dialogue. The momentum grew and we have conducted about 12 of these dialogues. We went to the United Kingdom, Canada and all over the United States. We are meeting again shortly in San Francisco. We have hundreds of people coming to listen to us and participate.

The success was twofold: Judea is able to keep alive the memory of that remarkable young man, his son, and I am able to pay tribute to that memory. Both of us are able to transform that into a bridge between Jews and Muslims and between American and Muslim civilizations.

The second success was more functional: In the United States, we were specifically asked to come to Duke University, where there were tensions between Jewish and Muslim students. They asked us to have a dialogue and involve these kids. Both groups came. As the day progressed, we saw them becoming friends. By the end of the dialogue they were all chatting quite amiably and ended the day going out to dinner together.

This has made an impact because it has been widely reported in the Middle East, in the Arab press and in the Pakistani press. Not everyone was happy. There was a headline in a Pakistani paper that said “Akbar Ahmed, Sole Muslim Voice Wanting Dialogue with the Jews.” I got a lot of threats and nasty emails from people saying “I don’t approve of what you’re doing,” “you’re selling out” and I was even called an “Uncle Tom.” It was not very encouraging.

But I made a commitment to dialogue after 9/11 and I stuck by that commitment. Dialogue by itself is empty. It’s rhetoric, it’s a cliché. Two people talk, they go home and nothing happens. But dialogue that leads to understanding leads to the idea of actually getting to know each other, of understanding. I’ve gotten to know Judea. I’ve come to know the pain, the history and the traditions of his people. From this dialogue we have seen the possibility of friendship and friendship changes everything. When people become friends, they don’t think of blowing themselves up and killing each other. They are prepared to make compromises, to change, to accommodate.

You publicly recommend Karen Armstrong’s book, The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which argues that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all going through a period of intense internal debate between their “fundamentalists” and “moderates.” Based on your study and travels, who is winning in the Muslim world, and who will ultimately win?

I would answer by saying, look at the trends in the polls. In Somalia, in the Arab states, in Pakistan and Iran, Muslim religious parties are very much ascendant. The exclusivist model is on the rise. But where are the mystics and the pacifists? Where are the modernists? Where are the Jinnahs of our time?

Who wins in the future will depend largely on the United States of America and its political leaders. If they continue what they are doing now, then the success of the religious party is guaranteed, because the blunders being made by the United States in its foreign policy ensure the emergence and consolidation of the exclusivist groups. The continuation of grievances in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and now Lebanon expands the breeding ground for terrorists to recruit more people to their cause. This would be at great cost to Islam because it is ultimately a religion of balance and compassion. But all this is now being affected by the men of violence and emotion.

If the United States is able to understand this equation, maybe it will change its policy and help Islam regain its balance, which will calm the Muslim world and, therefore, the rest of the world. If that doesn’t happen, if we see the continuation of the clash of civilizations theory and its implementation, we will almost certainly see the emergence and consolidation of the exclusionists. Then, we will all be in for a violent, troublesome and uncertain future in the 21st century.

So we really need to ask: Has the clash theory, which has so far dominated foreign policy in the United States, really succeeded? Has it gotten us what we wanted or should we now explore an alternative paradigm?

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