Home Digital Magazine A Journey into interfaith dialogue with Professor Akbar S. Ahmed

A Journey into interfaith dialogue with Professor Akbar S. Ahmed

GVS sat down with Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed to discuss his lifelong work related to interfaith dialogue and about Muslims living across borders.

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GVS News Desk |

GVS: The past couple of decades you have done much work on inter-faith relations. What is driving your interest in this?

Dr. Akbar: I think my interest in inter-faith relations grew from my childhood. I was four years old when the partition took place and my parents put their children – the four of us, I was the eldest – in a train in Delhi in August 1947 and we crossed the killing fields of Punjab where millions of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were crossing from one side of the border to the other. I was young but I became very aware that for some reason people [Hindus and Sikhs ] wanted to kill me because I was a Muslim. I wasn’t even sure what that meant. There was so much violence, bloodshed, children being killed and women being dishonored; that left a very deep impression on my young mind.

Now we also have to explain the evil and the violence while pointing out that it’s not Islam, by quoting the Prophet (PBUH) with what we said above.

All my life I have been very curious about hatred and what propels human beings to act with such hatred that they are prepared to kill. That in turn, has pushed me into understanding and reaching out and getting to know the ‘other’. I arrived at the American University in Washington DC, one week before 9/11 and I was in class teaching that day, when a plane flew into the Pentagon which is five miles away from my university – my work in inter-faith, anthropology and understanding the ‘other’ suddenly became highly relevant. I realized if I was not able to explain what my tradition, my culture and my religion meant, my community would be seriously in trouble. It was being misunderstood and was under attack and being blamed for 9/11.

I was just a scholar on campus but I felt that if I can do anything to promote better understanding, I should do it and that is how I became very active in inter-faith dialogues. With the Bishop of Washington and the senior Rabbi of Washington, we formed the first Abrahamic Summit at the National Cathedral, this is a major cathedral of America. From there we started an entire inter-faith movement that resulted in conferences, meetings and in turn, the spiritual unity walk – which is an institution in America now. En-masse we start at a synagogue, go to the church, the National Cathedral, walk down Massachusetts Avenue and end up at the main mosque. It is symbol of unity.

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GVS: Do you think your role as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland helped you understand inter-faith relations better?

Dr. Akbar: No, I was already into it long before I became High Commissioner. I was the first Muslim in Oxford or Cambridge to be asked to speak at the evensong in a chapel – That is their prayer, like we have a Jummah prayer on Friday, Christians have a very special prayer on Sunday called the evensong. I was actually asked to speak there, it’s like asking me to give a khutba, it doesn’t happen. So I was the first Muslim at Cambridge to be asked to do that. I was again honored to speak at the evensong at the National Cathedral, but that’s 2005. Then I was the first Muslim, again before the High Commissionership, to be invited to speak at a major synagogue; I was asked to give the Rabbi Botstein Annual Lecture at the synagogue in St. John’s Wood. It was a great event – huge event – with members of the Parliament, Lords and the media. There was a lot of excitement because it was the first time a Muslim scholar had spoken and it sort of broke the ice, in terms of Jewish-Muslim relations.

GVS: You have written and talked much about the fear of the ‘other’ especially in relation to the West, but isn’t it also prevalent in Pakistan,  for example, when it comes to minorities here?

Dr. Akbar: There is a big difference. In the West, it is in the context of a big community targeting a different smaller community, but here, it is generally, the Muslim community targeting other Muslims. Muslims are trying to out their version of Islam vis a vis one another – the Shias, Sunnis, Deobandis, Barelvis, or against Ahmedis. That is a slippery slope because you go down that slope of intolerance and very soon you are also targeting Hindus, Sikhs and anyone else you don’t like. You don’t like your neighbor, so you label them as a different sect to target them. So they are two very different things. This is Pakistan where the vast majority, around 95% of the people are Muslims and they should not feel insecure; yet it is Muslim targeting Muslim, which is the primary source of tension – remember it’s the Hazara Shias who are being targeted in Quetta, the  Army Public School was targeted where 150 children were killed. Who killed them? Muslims killed them. They didn’t come from Japan or China, they’re Muslims. So such incidents consist of Muslim on Muslim violence, which is slightly different to what fear of the ‘other’ is in the West. Both equally condemnable but different.

GVS: In terms of your latest book, ‘Journey into Europe,’ can you tell us a little bit about the background of this endeavor and what you hope to achieve from it?

Dr. Akbar: Well, this is a fourth book of a quartet of studies that I began after 9/11. The focus is on the relationship between Islam and the West. My hope is that people who want to know about Islam, both Muslim and non-Muslim, would be able to understand the diversity and the complexity of Islam through these studies. So they look at the subject – ‘The Islam and West’ – with four different perspectives. Like in the ‘Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell, we look at one set of events through four different characters in the story. So I am taking four different perspectives and looking at the same problem: the Muslim world looking at the west, the west looking at the Muslim world, tribal societies and now Europe.

With the Bishop of Washington and the senior Rabbi of Washington, we formed the first Abrahamic Summit at the National Cathedral, this is a major cathedral of America.
GVS: It is my understanding that you travelled across Europe and interviewed Muslims and Non-Muslims, what was the most recurrent belief about Muslims?

Dr. Akbar: The most recurrent belief now is that Muslims are violent, a worthless civilization and that they have not contributed much to the western civilization. This began as a marginal idea, slowly moving from the right wing – who propagated this idea and now you can hear it in the mainstream media, which is frightening for me as a Muslim. It is increasingly being espoused by politicians, we have these big figures, which I also mentioned in the book, like Geert in Holland and La Pen in France, who might be the President or the Prime Minister next year; they are quoting exactly this thesis. Trump’s former chief strategist Bannon spends a lot of time in Europe. Right now, he is in Italy and his purpose is to drum up and reinforce support for the extreme right.

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GVS: Talking about Trump’s America, do you think that his election was the result of an accident or does it represent the regression of western politics?

Dr. Akbar: If you read my book ‘Journey into America,’ it gives a very a detailed study of the American society. It is one of the quartet of books that I mentioned and it explains how and why Trump emerged. Trump is coming out of the vast numbers of white Americans, who are not very successful or rich, who belong to the middle class or lower middle class with lost jobs, who feel very insecure and threatened, especially by the immigrants who make them feel that their country no longer belongs to them. So that reaction was politically and strategically very well played by Trump and he tapped into it ultimately winning the election.

GVS: You talked about an incident in your book, where your team got chased away from a mosque in Bradford by aggressive Muslim teenagers. You talk a lot about hope in your book but does this not show that the next generation is not ready for change?

Dr. Akbar: Yes, the youth there is angry, but you have to try to understand these things are complex. Hope does not end with anger, it is an inherent condition in humans. Even angry young people want to convert their anger into hope – that is why they are angry – they want to have jobs, they want prestige, they want to be recognized and they want dignity. It doesn’t mean that they are suicidal and they have cancelled their identities, it means that they are expressing what they want in this very angry way. You and I may see that as destructive, and it can become destructive, but it gives me hope because their anger means that there is still vitality, they are alive and want to express themselves. Now if that anger can be channeled – I have pointed that out in my book –  by their elders, their parents and their religious and social leaders. That can be very positive and strong as it has happened before, that too from that same Bradford community, you have people like Zayn Malik and these extraordinary women who have emerged – Saima Afzal, Naz Shah and Baroness Warsi. All of these amazing people are coming out of that environment, they have that kind of anger and the dynamism to want to do something.

Who gives any regard to scholars in this Muslim society? You see how scholars are treated under Saddam Hussein? Under Assad in Syria? This treatment chases them out, they go abroad or ultimately stop writing.

The mosque incident is also interesting; again you have to understand the complexity of their anger and hope, and you must not misunderstand it. A week before that incident, some ‘white’ British people had gone to the same mosque my team went to, invaded the mosque with their boots on, while people were praying, they came in front of the people with their Bibles and said that you must read this. Now this was while people were in sajdah and they suddenly saw boots in front of them. Wouldn’t something like that make you angry? So the next time you see all white people there with a camera, how will you react? That is what happened when my team suddenly turned up.

I blame my team and I was very tough with them. I asked them, 1, why did you turn up? 2, why did you not inform me? 3, why did you not take me with you. I rang the mayor of Bradford, who is also a Pakistani, he came to pick me up and drove me to the same mosque. The people were very welcoming to us – as they were to the American researchers with me. That’s the background which is very important to the story and this is why I give case studies in my books to explain the complexity behind the situation.

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GVS: In your book, you have talked about ‘Medieval Andalusia’ and the concept of ‘La Convivencia’ where all faiths lived in harmony, what makes you so hopeful that it can be achieved again?

Dr. Akbar: At the end of my book I give two choices for the future of Europe: either dystopia or Andalusia. Dystopia means chaos, violence and war – a Hobbesian vision of the world and that exists for a lot of migrants. They have escaped the killing fields of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, landed in Europe, but where they are facing right wing racists who are violent and who firebomb their homes. That’s one future. The second possibility is Andalusia where they live together and co-exist together and that is why the idea of Convivencia, which is a Spanish term that means coexistence, becomes so powerful.

GVS: The author Robert Spencer of ‘The History of Jihad,’ questioned the portrayal of ‘Andalusia’ stating that there was no peace under the Muslim rule. How would you respond to that?

Dr. Akbar: I would respond by saying that the Andalusian period extended for centuries, anyone will tell you that human societies will have good and bad periods, that there will be times of peace and times of conflicts. So when he says something like that, it becomes quite meaningless. It’s like saying you never fell ill, of course you have fallen ill, your body is not perfect and neither is it a machine. Sometimes you won’t feel well and sometimes you will have a cold. So, human societies are like that, sometimes there are long periods of peace and harmony and sometimes there is chaos.

Every year in New York, there is an Irish parade, they have Italian restaurants and actors belonging to different backgrounds, all of whom they are proud of.

What he argues is that Muslims have never produced anything worthwhile. And this leads with the same belief I mentioned earlier that ‘Muslim civilization is worthless and cannot produce anything worthwhile and therefore Andalusia could not have existed. If Akbar says that they produced art and culture which gave you peace, what does that mean?’ It means that they are not right. So anyone who believes in that kind of vision of Islam, will never believe that there was a time of peace and harmony. To clarify the existence of  Andalusia, I also point to the same period in Bosnia. Even today the Jews there will tell you, as I quote in the book, the Head of the Jewish community, Ambassador Finci, says that there is no anti-Semitism in Bosnia. That’s today, in spite of the genocide the Muslims faced in 1990s, this is the feeling there –  we can live as inter-faith communities in harmony.

GVS: But the image of the Muslims in the West is that they have not contributed. Not many people know about the history. How would you change that?

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Dr. Akbar: I am hoping to change that with my books and films. Now the challenge is for the people to read those books and watch the films. I am very serious about this. If Muslims themselves are not aware, I have done the research and brought it here, you have to now pick it up and say that there is something here for me to read and share. Because it’s right, not many people know about this. When I quote things here, Muslims say that they weren’t aware of it. This is the research that I gathered after travelling with my team for four years to North, South, East and West and it’s all documented here.

GVS: In your video, it says that Europe promotes itself as a free country but then it also goes on to define what freedom is, they are dictating how you are supposed to live your life. How are Muslims supposed to survive in such an environment?

Dr. Akbar: That’s a big problem for Muslims living in the West. You are a minority and you have two choices: Either continue to live in the margins or join the mainstream by getting good jobs, appear in the media to let people see who you are and understand where you are from. I keep going back to my own example, I have seen Muslims change over time in the 60s, 70s and 80s till now. And now paradoxically, when I thought that the problems would disappear and there would be better relations, there are not. In some sections though, let me be very clear, some Muslims are doing extremely well and are well adjusted. So you shouldn’t generalize it, but there are many areas where problems exist and Islamophobia is growing. What’s the evidence? The attacks on mosques and the Muslim women are the highest ever. Muslims have to do something about it. They have to be more active in media, more active in reaching out to politicians and Assemblies.

GVS: you have often quoted ‘the ink of a scholar is more sacred than the blood of a martyr,’ what do you mean by that exactly?

Trump is coming out of the vast numbers of white Americans, who are not very successful or rich, who belong to the middle class or lower middle class with lost jobs, who feel very insecure and threatened, especially by the immigrants who make them feel that their country no longer belongs to them.

Dr. Akbar: Now this is a very important quote and I’m glad you picked it up. The Prophet (PBUH) of Islam, who is our role model, is called ‘Insan-e-Kamil’ in Islam, which translates to the ‘perfect human.’ Although, nothing is perfect except for God in Islam, but we Muslims look up to him and call him ‘Insan-e-Kamil.’ Now, what is he telling us? How should we organize our lives? What values should we give to others? We are told to be pious, to stand up and fight for Islam and to read books and increase our knowledge. All these are different commands given to us. So what is our order of priority? Some people will tell you to give your lives for Islam, Jihad, go to Afghanistan and blow yourself up there. Some religious scholars will actually tell you that.

I did a lot of research on this and tried to understand what the Prophet (PBUH) would say, because it is very important to defend Islam. Where does knowledge come into all this. There were people, scholars, who were asked to give up books to give their life for Islam, as was done to the Taliban – what does Talib mean? Talib means scholar – so these ‘scholars of Islam’ were sitting in the seminary and reading. They were told that what they were doing wasn’t true Islam and that they should go give themselves up and commit suicide. I began to research on this simply as a student, because I wanted to understand. I have lived in the tribal areas, I was political agent but I couldn’t make sense of this – why should you kill yourself? So to understand this, I read up what the Prophet (PBUH) would have said about killing oneself versus scholarship. My God, I found a revelation, ‘the ink of a scholar is more sacred than the blood of a martyr.’ This means that if you’re thinking of blowing yourself up, stop because your ink as a scholar is more sacred than the blood you will flow. So preserve your blood and it’s the ink that you must see as sacred, which emphasizes the importance of learning and scholarship. But we have reversed this saying by calling the blood of the martyr more sacred than the ink of a scholar.

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Who gives any regard to scholars in this Muslim society? You see how scholars are treated under Saddam Hussein? Under Assad in Syria? This treatment chases them out, they go abroad or ultimately stop writing. People come to their homes and threaten them; that is the state of their scholarship. People, who proudly call themselves Muslims, should be aware that this is their prophet’s saying.

GVS: You talk about the gap between the Muslim world and the western world getting bigger and bigger. How do you think Pakistan plays a role in that?

Dr. Akbar: Well you know Pakistan potentially has so much going for it. When I was growing up, I joined the CSP in 1966, it was a very different Pakistan, a very optimistic Pakistan. The World Bank called Pakistan a role model for developing societies. The South Koreans came to the country to learn from us, in search for Pakistan’s miracle and basically wanted to become like it. But now the youth is shocked to hear this, they can’t believe that we grew up with this.

When I come across the things happening here, my heart breaks and I wonder what happened to Pakistan. One of the things is education – what did we do with education? We chased out Fazal ur Rehman, who was a great Islamic scholar. We disowned Abdul Samad Salam because he is an Ahmedi. This is how a lot of the scholars and writers were either chased out or silenced. And the consequences are in front of you now. We cannot have a society which is bereft of thinking or thought, even if people don’t agree, they must be given the right to write what they believe in. So this is what happened to Pakistan, it was created by Quaid- e- Azam as a modern Muslim society with rights for minority, for women – every individual. The white in the flag of Pakistan represents minorities. But today, are we honoring our minorities? We burn their churches and chase them in their temples. What would Quaid- e- Azam say to this? He would be horrified.

They have escaped the killing fields of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, landed in Europe, but where they are facing right wing racists who are violent and who firebomb their homes.

After 9/11,  Pakistan reflects negative image of Islam generally, it has a bad reputation, because it is also associated with terrorism, Taliban, TTP and all these organizations. And we have got to stop, one day we are killing the Hazaras in Quetta, the next day we attack some church in Lahore, then the next day school children are being killed in Peshawar. We cannot continue doing this and still say that the whole world is against us and it’s a conspiracy. These are facts and they are happening in Pakistan. We are standing on the brink and now we have to pull back. We must pull back and try to rediscover the vision of Quaid- e- Azam, to live up to that Pakistan.

GVS: If you could advice the Muslim youth of today on how to promote and deal with inter-faith relations, especially the youth living abroad, what would you say?

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Dr. Akbar: I would say that they must not lose their own identity and integrity. This is very important. If Muslims are living in America, they must be very proud Americans, but they must also be proud of their own culture and traditions. Because they bring so much to the table and that is how western societies work. They don’t ask you to reject your culture but in fact, to bring them the richness of your culture. Every year in New York, there is an Irish parade, they have Italian restaurants and actors belonging to different backgrounds, all of whom they are proud of.

Except we have a complex where we try to hide our culture, which is impossible because our culture is written on our face, it is shown through the color of our skin and through your name. So you go abroad and show the people that you love their society but you also tell them that you love your beautiful culture. Do you know about Bhit Shah, Data Ganj Baksh in Lahore and Pir Baba in the Frontier? These are huge spiritual figures. Allama Iqbal, in our literature and our poetry, Mirza Ghalib and Mir Taqi Mir are giants. Now when you share such knowledge with your friends, they will be wowed by your rich culture and in fact be proud to welcome you. They will be fascinated by the food you have and the clothes you wear. As the Indians do, I have noticed how Indians arrive there, they remain true to their culture, women wear saris and they stay proud of their religion without hiding it or feeling ashamed of it. Similarly, we shouldn’t be ashamed of things either and be proud of what we have. Share all your goodness with people. Now we also have to explain the evil and the violence while pointing out that it’s not Islam, by quoting the Prophet (PBUH) with what we said above. That quotation is very important with our discussion with violence. Through this, we tell them that what these guys are doing is an aberration from Islam.

GVS: What is your next step in terms of your work?

Dr. Akbar : As my professor, who thoroughly enjoys and respects my work, semi-sarcastically said last time, ‘well you are running out of continents and there are no Muslims in Antarctica, so there is no point in writing a book on the ‘Journey into Antarctica.’ This actually made me wonder what I have left to do. A lot of people recently came up to me and suggested that I should do something deeper into the Muslim world, for example the Shia-Sunni matter and how to repair it. Because right now the Muslim world is in a terrible conflict between the Saudi-led Sunnis and the Shia led by Iran. And this conflict is taking lives, dividing communities and creating a lot of tension into the future. So that’s a major project, but I’m not sure what I want to do because I have just finished this and at this stage all I’m trying to do is get the book out. I have been on a very hectic tour with the book, I went to Harvard to give a lecture there and then various places in Washington DC, then I went to Chatham House in England, Cambridge, then SOAS in London, and University of London. Now, I am going to the Bradford Literature Festival again with the book. So once this tour finishes, I have got two or three options, once I have decided, you’ll be the first to know.

Akbar Salahuddin Ahmed is a Pakistani-American academic, author, poet, playwright, filmmaker and former diplomat. He is the former Ambassador of Pakistan to the UK and Ireland and has also served as Political Agent in South Waziristan Agency and Commissioner in Baluchistan. Ahmed has been called the ‘leading authority on contemporary Islam’ by the BBC.


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