BERLIN/LONDON ― In her early 20s, Kristiane Baker was having the time of her life. She was living her dream as a presenter for MTV Europe, brushing shoulders with celebrities like Mick Jagger and Bono on a regular basis ― and getting paid to do it. From the outside, it was everything she had ever hoped for. But on the inside, she sometimes felt a crushing sense of depression and anxiety that she couldn’t shake.
And then she met Imran Khan, the famous Pakistani cricketer who through music would lead her to Islam and a new sense of inner peace.
“He was my introduction to Islam,” she said of Khan. “I like to say I wasn’t looking, I was found.”
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed sits to the right of host Ambassador Chaudhry at the high table of the interfaith Iftar. To the Ambassador’s left sat Ambassador Ahmed’s friend, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and Rabbi Batya Steinlauf. Photo credit: Zeenat Ahmed
Political commentator Bill Maher, his voice dripping with the vitriol which he reserves for Islam, made the claim last week when interviewing Breitbart Editor Alex Marlow on his HBO program, Real Time with Bill Maher, that interfaith dialogue and tolerance of other religions is not possible in the Muslim world. He particularly singled out Pakistan, going so far as to say, “I don’t think the idea that ‘Oh, you know what, there are many ways to God, they’re all valid, let’s agree to disagree’ — I don’t think that’s a thing you find in Pakistan a lot.”
I found it ironic then that on June 20, a mere four days after Maher’s program aired, Ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, the former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and one of the nation’s senior most diplomats, hosted an interfaith Iftar at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, DC, welcoming some of Washington’s most prominent interfaith leaders. As an embassy abroad is considered to be the terrain of the nation it represents, we were on Pakistani territory.
The 250 prominent Muslim and non-Muslims in attendance—ambassadors, senior State Department officials, journalists, and community and religious leaders—filled the hall to capacity. Distinguished speakers representing the major faiths addressed the gathering and emphasized the need to build bridges between religions.
Ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry welcomes Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to the Embassy of Pakistan’s interfaith Iftar. Photo Credit: Embassy of Pakistan
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Catholic Archbishop of Washington and an active player in global peace and humanitarian initiatives, traveling often on behalf of Catholic Relief Services around the globe, gave a remarkable speech emphasizing the closeness of Islam and Christianity. In particular, he noted how both faiths love and revere the Virgin Mary. Cardinal McCarrick also said he was thrilled to announce that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, is preparing to visit Pakistan soon, saying how His Holiness is particularly excited about his visit. Cardinal McCarrick believes His Holiness will fall in love with Pakistan.
Representing Hinduism was Nanik Lahori, a member of the Boards of Directors of both the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, DC and the United Hindu and Jain Temples Association. He discussed how Allah and Brahma, the names of God in Islam and Hinduism, represent the same reality, and how as such, it is of the utmost importance that we as Muslims and Hindus treat each other as part of a common humanity.
Dr. Rajwant Singh, the Founder and Chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education and the former president of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, as well as a prolific interfaith leader on the national stage on behalf of the Sikh community, spoke about how close Islam is to Sikhism and how the sacred scripture of the Sikhs is replete with sayings and verses of Baba Farid, the great Sufi saint. Dr. Singh, drawing parallels between Islam and Sikhism and noting how peace, love, and humility lie at the heart of both traditions, also quoted several verses of Baba Farid, a Sufi saint, and Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion who is known for such quotes as, “Even Kings and emperors with heaps of wealth and vast dominion cannot compare with an ant filled with the love of God.”
Also speaking were Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, a Conservative rabbi who serves both as the Director of Social Justice and Intergroup Relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and as Vice President of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, who gave the Jewish perspective, and Jo Reed, a Director at Soka Gakkai International-USA, representing the Buddhist faith. Both cited their respective sacred scriptures.
I was honored to once again be requested to speak on behalf of Islam as part of the Iftar. I opened my remarks by discussing how the Bismillah cites the two greatest names of God, Rahman and Rahim, or the Compassionate and Merciful, out of the 99 beautiful names in the holy Quran. It is repeated all day throughout the world by millions of Muslims.
I also shared with the audience several insightful verses from the Quran which I believe are not cited often enough, particularly in these times of great turmoil around the globe. I first read aloud, “And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colours: verily in that are Signs for those who know” (30:22). Next, I read to the audience, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other))” (49:13). I concluded this portion of my remarks with the verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things” (2:256).
I additionally discussed the importance of ilm, or knowledge, which is the second most-used word in the Quran and went on to conclude with my favorite saying of the Prophet (PBUH): “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”
From Top: Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, Nanik Lahori, and Ambassador Akbar Ahmed deliver remarks on behalf of their respective faith traditions at the Embassy of Pakistan’s annual interfaith Iftar. Photo credit: Embassy of Pakistan
Following the remarks of myself and the other speakers, Ambassador Chaudhry spoke about the importance of religious tolerance in our diverse and conflicted world today and about countering the ongoing threat and inherent closed-mindedness of terrorism. He also emphasized that Islam is a religion of peace – a sentiment often forgotten in the West. To underline his points, the Ambassador quoted the famous speech of Mr M.A.Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, delivered before the Constituent Assembly in 1947: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” (For more on Mr. Jinnah, please see my documentary, Mr. Jinnah: The Making of Pakistan, linked below.)
The Ambassador also quoted the Farewell Sermon of the holy Prophet (PBUH): “O people! Indeed, your Lord is one and your father is one. Indeed, there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, nor of a non-Arab over an Arab, nor of a white over a black, nor a black over a white, except by taqwa (piety).”
When I mentioned to Ambassador Chaudhry the irony of Bill Maher’s remarks in the context of the interfaith conviviality around us as we broke our fast, the Ambassador smiled broadly. Perhaps he was thinking that Bill Maher should have joined us for this year’s interfaith iftar and seen for himself how Pakistan and other Muslim countries, in spite of the serious challenges they face, such as terrorism, can be great centers of bridge building and dialogue between faiths.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark ― Annette Bellaoui remembers the moment well. She was meeting a leading politician in the Danish People’s Party, known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric. He stared at her, “seriously contemplating” Bellaoui in a way that seemed as though he was asking himself, “‘does this woman have hand grenades in her pockets?’”
“There was fear and anger and everything in his face,” she recalled. “And, do you know what I did? I smiled at him, my sweetest smile.” And then she blew a kiss.
Bellaoui, a 58-year-old Dane who converted to Islam nearly two decades ago, giggles when she tells this story. She’s wholeheartedly aware that the reaction to a likely incident of Islamophobia is an unorthodox one, especially for a woman in a hijab who also goes by the name Fatima Zahra. But that’s precisely why she did it.
CAMBRIDGE, England ― When Tim Winter became a Muslim in 1979, Islam was still something of a mystery to the West. He was a 19-year-old undergraduate student at Cambridge University and a self-described “freelance monotheist.”
Today, Winter, a 57-year-old native Londoner who also goes by the name Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, faces a much different reality. Islam has grown to one of the largest religions in Europe, and with it, Islamophobia.
Winter, keenly aware of this new reality, is tackling it head-on. As one of Europe’s most prominent Islamic scholars and dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, he spends his days training graduates of Britain’s top Islamic seminaries to better navigate and engage with British society.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark ― Imam Abdul Wahid Pedersen first began to spiritually connect to the Islamic faith on a mountain in the holy temple town of Hampi, India in the summer of 1977. It would be about five years before Pedersen, then a 23-year-old convert to Hinduism, would become Muslim, but the experience left him profoundly changed.
“Time seemed to stand still, and I was totally lost in that feeling for as long as it lasted,” he said. “It would, nevertheless, take another few years before my brain and heart fully understood this message, and I surrendered to Allah.”
Pedersen had been on a quest for greater spiritual understanding, climbing up a mountain toward a temple at the top when it had happened. It was a moonlit night, and as the chanting echoed above, he had stopped for a drink of water at a small stream along the way. The opening was so low that he had had to bend down in order to catch the trickle. Laying on the ground, he had stretched his hand forward towards the water. At that moment, with the moon on the mountains, he realized that, “God wanted me to lie flat in front of him.” When he did so, Pedersen had unintentionally completed a prostration before God.
Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity
Europe today confronts complicated and controversial issues surrounding its Muslim population including Sharia law, terrorism, the building of mosques, female dress, and the pressures of immigration and multiculturalism.
Akbar Ahmed, the world renowned Muslim anthropologist, is now embarking on a new study of Islam in Europe which will take him and his international team across the continent.
Journey into Europe is the fourth part of an unprecedented quartet of award-winning books exploring relations between the West and the world of Islam after 9/11.