By Akbar Ahmed
Perhaps no country in the world does a global event such as the one I attended this March quite like the USA. I was privileged to be launching my book, Journey into Europe, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, one of Washington, DC’s premier think tanks. This event was unique in that I was talking face to face with some 100 of the Muslim world’s finest young leaders.
The students were visiting as part of a one-year high school exchange program called the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, which was established by Congress in 2002 as part of the response to the attacks on 9/11. The program specifically welcomes students from countries with large Muslim populations to study in the US. This group was spending the week in DC as part of the Kennedy-Lugar YES Civic Education Workshop.
John Milewski, the Director of Digital Programming for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who produces and hosts the interview program Wilson Center Now, and my good friend of many years, hosted the program. After John and I spoke about the main ideas in the book, the floor opened to the students. Below I highlight some exchanges I had during this meaningful dialogue.
The first question came from a Moroccan girl named Hiba, who asked, “You said that you started working at the university days before 9/11, so I would love to know how did that event affect your career as a teacher at a university and, as well, how did it affect your relationship with both your work peers and your students at the university?” I responded, “Well that’s a great question and I have been asking that question myself since then because it affected everything. My life completely changed.” I was seen simplistically”as a Muslim.” “I realized that it was critical to build bridges.” Next, a young man from Tunisia named Aziz discussed “the burden” of representing Islam while studying in the US. I asked him to serve as the best representative of the Muslim world:”You are answering for the world of Islam. Start researching. Learn the history of Islam, the history of the world, the interaction with other people.”I also emphasized to Aziz the importance of following the Prophet’s (PBUH) famous saying, “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”
Fatima, a young girl from Nigeria, spoke about women in Islam and asked that I “please mention some of the rights Islam gives to women, because a lot of people in America think that the hijab and the five daily prayers are like a torture to women or to Muslims.” I replied, “These are the rights that Islam legally gives women in the seventh century, and remember they will not have rights in Europe until the nineteenth, maybe twentieth century. The right to inheritance,to divorce, to education, to be a philosopher like Hazrat Rabia.” To this I added, “Unfortunately Muslim men have been largely ignorant of Islamic law and have deprived women, and that continues to today, all this nonsense of honour killings, etc. – this is not Islam. And I can say with pride that there are societies in Nigeria, in Egypt, and throughout the Muslim world where women are now fighting for their rights.” I also spoke about how Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia have all been led by women, yet, “We are still waiting in the United States for a female president.”
Marija, a Christian girl from Macedonia, framed her question by stating, “I grew up around a lot of people that have a lot of bias and prejudice against Islam. I wanted to ask you what are some ideas you might have about what we can do once we get back to our communities to eliminate that prejudice. How can I, Christian born, be a good ambassador of Islam?” In my reply, I said, “You need to reach out to your neighbors. Talk to your Christian friends from the Muslim side and then go and meet your Muslim friends and neighbors and talk to them from the Christian side.” Kais, a Palestinian boy who lives in Israel, expressed his desire to engage in Jewish-Muslim dialogue and asked, “Can you please tell us about the Jewish community, and can you please also give us any advice about how we teenagers can change our communities, especially my community, because I am an Arab that lives in Israel?” I gave Kais the example of Rabbi Bruce Lustig, and how with Bishop John Chane, the former Episcopal Bishop of Washington, we launched dialogues between the Abrahamic faiths in DC right after 9/11. Appreciating the difficult time in his region, I encouraged young Kais with the following: “Promote learning. Promote interfaith dialogue. Promote friendship. And you’ll find; there’s a saying in Islam that you are commanded to put your hand out in friendship and if you put your hand out, the other person will put his hand out, and you’ll embrace each other, but if you accuse someone- you say I accuse you- remember these fingers are pointing back at you, so you are accusing yourself.”
Finally, Amira, a girl from the Philippines, asked me, “As Muslims, we have a difference between scholars like muftis who purely study Islam and the Quran, and as you, a scholar who graduated from prominent universities, how do you think would be the effective way of inshallah communicating with people? Because usually people who were purely educated with Islam and the Quran, they wouldn’t even listen to me.” To this remarkable question, I replied, “I’m delighted that so many women have asked questions, both Muslim and non-Muslim like Marija. It is your faith, it is your future, and you can’t allow anyone to hijack it. You have to reclaim Islam.”
Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Press, 2018)