Category Archives: Articles

Going inside the two worlds of European Muslims – Harrison Akins, The Tennessean

Much of the news coverage of the British terrorist attacks in Manchester and London over the last few months has focused on whether the attackers had links with or were influenced by the Islamic State.

The question that has unfortunately received less attention is why European citizens would be attracted to the hateful and violent message of ISIS and be willing to commit terrorist attacks against their fellow Europeans.

To investigate this question and to gain better insights into the various challenges facing the Muslim communities in Europe, I was privileged to serve as an associate producer and researcher for the documentary film and book project, “Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity” (forthcoming Brookings Press 2018), by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University’s School of International Service and former Pakistani Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland.

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Bill Maher, You Should Have Been at the Pakistan Embassy This Week

 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

“This Muslim Convert Is Changing The Conversation About Women In Islam With Music And Humor” – Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Huffington Post

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.

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“This Muslim Convert Is Prepping The Next Batch Of Muslim Scholars To Be More In Tune With UK Society” – Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, The Huffington Post

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.

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“This Self-Described ‘Hillbilly’ Muslim Convert Is A Refreshing Link Between Islam And His Danish Culture” – Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Huffington Post

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.

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Building bridges in divisive times – Aijaz Zaka Syed, Gulf News

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).

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Pakistani-American Professor Wins Scholar-Teacher of the Year Award – Patrick Burnett, The Huffington Post

Muslims continue to face attacks from all directions in today’s America. The Council on American-Islamic relations recently released their annual report on Islamophobic attacks, finding a 57 percent increase in attacks on Muslims in 2016 from the prior year. The trend does not appear to be abating in 2017. Just last week, a video of a Muslim woman being harassed in line at a Northern Virginia Trader Joe’s went viral, showcasing how some now feel comfortable casually harassing Muslims over their faith in the middle of a grocery store. Meanwhile, an Oregon man was just arrested after threatening to kill worshipers at a mosque, and a Muslim family on a beach in Texas was recently subjected to an Islamophobic tirade by a self-proclaimed Trump supporter. To say it is a challenging time for Muslims in America would be an understatement.

Thankfully, there are bright spots for American Muslims in this toxic environment. On May 10, as part of the annual American University School of International Service (SIS) End-of-Year Celebration at the Maggiano’s Chevy Chase in Washington, DC, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University (AU), was awarded the 2016-17 SIS Scholar/Teacher of the Year award. As a leading faculty member of SIS, one of the top ten schools of international affairs in the US, Ahmed received this award in recognition of his “innovative and important scholarship as well as [his] dedicated, rigorous, and inspiring mentoring of our students and [his] service to our community.” Joined by several members of his family, including his wife, Zeenat, his two sons, Babar and Umar, his daughter-in-law Melody, and two of his grandsons, Alexander and Gabriel, along with two key members of his research team, Frankie Martin and myself, for the ceremony, Ahmed received this prestigious award before a full house and a standing ovation of SIS staff and faculty.

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What Christianity and Islam have in common – Harrison Akins, The Tennessean

There are many people today who argue Islam and Christianity are locked in a civilizational war, a view that has become a rationale for a number of the Trump administration’s policies.

This argument, however, is an inaccurate and simplistic assessment of the relationship between these two faiths. Quite distinct from the apocalyptic struggle many espouse, an examination of the foundations of the Islamic faith shows respect for Christianity.

Islam is part of the same Abrahamic tradition as Christianity. Key figures within the Bible — Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses (Musa), Mary (Maryam), and Jesus (Isa) among others — are all respected prophets and figures within Islam. There is a chapter in the Quran about Mary and, within the Quran, Jesus is the only person who can perform miracles.

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A Friendship Across Civilizations – Anna Brosius, The Huffington Post

Imagine these scenes: a newscaster portrays grim events of a policeman being hacked to death by a Muslim, who in turn is shot by police. Riots by nationalist groups fill streets with smoke and flames as if from an apocalyptic drama. A menacing man brandishes a machete toward a screen, with a voice over retelling the terrible threats he is making. These bleak and frightening images open the film, Journey into Europe, a documentary on Islam in Europe and the place of Islam in European history and civilization produced by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. Meanwhile, newspapers nearly every day flash with bombings and shootings which target Christian minorities in many Muslim majority countries. Whether in London or Lahore, Muslim-Christian tension all too often violently spills onto the streets of cities throughout the world. Many in both the West and the Muslim world would say that these horrific events show that Islamic and Western identities are incompatible, and that it is impossible for Christians and Muslims to coexist with peace and mutual respect.

However, in this world of sorrow and bloodshed, I have been privileged to witness the incredible friendship between Ahmed, a Muslim Pakistani who now calls America his home, and James Shera, a British Christian Pakistani. The affection and generosity of spirit which they have extended towards one another challenges this very narrative of hostility and hatred between the Muslim world and the West, Christians and Muslims.

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Transcending Interfaith Fear – Patrick Burnett, The Huffington Post

Minority faith communities are undergoing great stress in today’s America. Over the past several months, Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and even a Jewish museum have been vandalized across the country, while Jewish community centers have received a litany of bomb threats. One rabbi in Seattle, whose synagogue of 16 years was graffitied with such slogans as, “Holocaust is fake history,” remarked, “in my time, there’s been nothing like this.” Meanwhile, a number of mosques across the country, from Colorado to Michigan, have been threatened, vandalized, and even torched. Mosques across the country are now even being advised to set up security cameras and hire security guards in response to this disturbing trend. In the same vein, an active-shooter training was recently held in a suburban Baltimore mosque in response to these incidents. Clearly we are barreling down a slippery slope that can only end in disaster if it is unchecked at the highest levels of our society.

 

Though while the picture may be bleak for minorities across the country, not all hope is lost for our nation’s diverse faiths. In the face of this tension, fear, and angst, an interfaith spirit persists in many corners of America. It was in this light that on Friday, March 24, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, was invited to address Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. as the synagogue’s first-ever Muslim speaker. Congregation B’nai Tzedek, a prominent Montgomery County Conservative synagogue, is led by founder Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, who is also the current President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, “the central address of North American Jewry.”

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