On the morning of Friday, September 9, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed and team members Dr. Amineh Hoti and Patrick Burnett joined a distinguished roundtable of Greater Washington interfaith leaders at the Church House of the National Cathedral to welcome and speak with five visitors from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The visitors are touring the US as part of the US Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program, conducted under the auspices of the Meridian International Center. The purpose for the visit of these distinguished government officials and scholars is to explore “religious dialogue influencing foreign policy” as part of a State Department Sub-Regional Project for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The visiting delegation took the opportunity during this two-hour closed-door session to explore some of the challenges American interfaith leaders have faced in working to build bridges between different faith communities, particularly in the years since 9/11, and seek advice for how to overcome some of the great obstacles individuals and communities face in trying to come together and overcome differences.
Ambassador Ahmed, hailing from Pakistan and having worked extensively as a Commissioner in the Tribal Areas, was able in particular to poignantly illustrate to the delegation the importance of knowledge and understanding, as well as the importance of reaching out directly to both leaders and community members in order to build bridges. He made a strong plea to the Pakistani and Afghan leaders at the roundtable to not fall into the trap of many American Muslim leaders immediately following 9/11, who frequently echoed the hollow phrase, “Islam is a religion of peace,” as people were cynical and did not believe it to be so in light of the attacks. Fifteen years since 9/11, Ahmed emphasized that the challenge remains for Muslims to convince the world that their religion is one of peace and for the world not to indulge in Islamophobia – issues that remain at the fore of global affairs today.
Ahmed also stressed the importance of overcoming differences within one’s community and making a stand against those oppressed groups in their own society, while also emphasizing to the delegation the importance of having their voices heard both as interfaith leaders and as ambassadors of Pakistan and Afghanistan in a time when so many in the West grossly misunderstand the politics, culture, and society of these two nations. Without greater understanding in the West, Ahmed argued that it would continue to be difficult for American Muslims to make a strong case for themselves.
Following the roundtable conversation, the visiting delegation took a detailed tour of the National Cathedral and had a chance to learn more about Christianity, particularly the Episcopalian denomination. In the coming weeks, the visiting delegation will be traveling around the US further exploring how American interfaith practices are conducted.
The program was facilitated by Rev. Carol Flett, the Interreligious Officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and former Interfaith Programs Coordinator at the National Cathedral. The Washington-based delegation, in addition to Ambassador Ahmed and Islamabad-based Dr. Hoti, included Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, Ann Korky, a retired US Foreign Service officer and active lay member of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and Alan Ronkin, the Regional Director for the Washington office of the American Jewish Committee. Representing the delegation from Afghanistan and Pakistan were Mr. Sayed Muzammel Ferqat, the Director of the Secretariat of Afghanistan Moderation Center; Dr. Noorullah Kawsar, the Chief Editor, of Esteqamat (monthly) and a Lecturer at the Sayed Jamaludin Institute of Higher Studies; Professor Junaid Iqbal, a Religious Scholar and a Senior Anchorman for A Plus TV, Dr. Mohammed Khan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Iqra University and Visiting Faculty at National Defense University Islamabad, and Professor Khurshid Ahmad, a Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the University of Peshawar.