By Akbar Ahmed
I have been fortunate to live in and visit many incredible communities around the globe. But time and time again, my heart leads me back to one of the world’s most beautiful college towns – Cambridge, England.
I had the distinct privilege of living in Cambridge as I earned my Diploma in Education from Selwyn College in the mid-1960s and later when Iserved as the Iqbal Fellow Chair of Pakistan Studies for five years in the mid-1990s. I was a fellow of Selwyn College for over a decade, and finally returned as the Diane Middle brook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professor for the Michaelmas Term in 2012.
Recently I returned to Cambridge to launch my new book, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity. On this visit, however, I could sense the spirit of deep cosmopolitan embrace in the floral Cambridge air more sharply than ever.
My visit began with a unique event at the Woolf Institute, which is directed by Dr Edward Kessler, who founded the Institute in 1998 and whom I profiled in this column in December 2017. Dr Kessler has emerged as one of the world’s leading champions of bridge building among not just the Abrahamic faiths, the primary focus of his work, but non-Abrahamic faiths as well. On May 17, in conjunction with my book launch event, he pioneered another great achievement for the Institute – its first ever Iftar.
When Dr Kessler informed me that my book launch event would be held in conjunction with the Institute’s first Iftar, he wrote, “This will be an auspicious occasion as it will combine the launch of an important book and our first Iftar!” The event was held in the Institute’s smart new building, which was recently inaugurated by Princess Anne and intends to highlight commonalities in the human experience through artwork and an open, airy design which portends a welcoming spirit. One of the building’s highlights is a sculpture in the courtyard titled “Tree Of Life: Encounter” by Helaine Blumenfeld OBE. As Blumenfeld describes for the Woolf Institute’s annual calendar of events brochure, “Tree Of Life: Encounter is a powerful statement of the struggle for unity, with three strands joining together at the base and moving upward through dissonance and chaos to a beautiful flowering of hope.” The three strands are designed to represent the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths respectively. It is worth noting too that the building’s construction was funded by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim donors, thereby enshrining a bridge-building legacy on the hallowed grounds of Cambridge.
We were joined for the book launch and Iftar by a number of Cambridge VIPs representing all walks of life, including Sir Nicholas Barrington, once British High Commissioner to Pakistan, Professor Julius Lipner, a leading religious studies scholar, Dr Ahmed Keeler, a prominent convert to Islam, Mohsin Akhtar, owner of Heydon Grange Golf & Country Club, and Muhammad Ashraf of the Cambridge Mosque. As an additional gesture of bridge building, the Iftar dinner consisted of South Asian curries. Our hosts had arranged for dates, the traditional food to end the fast. I joined the Muslims at prayer in the “quiet room” prepared for us with clean sheets thoughtfully placed on the floor. The great faiths of the world came together in this beautiful space to mark the Islamic holy month in the very heart of Cambridge.
Throughout the course of the evening, Dr Kessler and I discussed the refugee crisis, the importance of being welcoming to refugees in Europe and beyond, as they are running for their very lives. We also discussed countering the rise of the Far Right which has come to dominate not just European, but global politics. Additionally, we discussed the emergence of a British Islam and how centres such as the Cambridge Muslim College, a supporter of the Iftar, with its focus on bridging Muslim values with British culture, symbolize its emergence.
The event was particularly special for me as I have been privileged to work extensively with Dr Kessler and the Woolf Institute over the years. For the last several years, Dr Kessler and I, along with his team at the Institute, have jointly run an online Jewish-Muslim dialogue course called Bridging the Great Divide: The Jewish-Muslim Encounter. The course is unique in that it brings students together from Washington to Cambridge and from Jerusalem to Islamabad to discuss the issues shaping the Jewish-Muslim relationship and explore ways to strengthen the relationship. Furthermore, my daughter, Dr Amineh Hoti, who earned her PhD from Cambridge, served as the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations, the first-ever such centre in Europe, which eventually became part of the foundation of the Woolf Institute.
Dr Kessler and I also wrote a chapter together in 2016 titled Constructive Dialogue: A Muslim and Jewish Perspective on Dialogue between Islam and Judaism, which was published in the volume The Routledge Handbook of Muslim-Jewish Relations. And despite my extensive travels and work around the world, I have yet to find an academic centre this innovative in how it approaches dialogue between faiths than the Woolf Institute. The Woolf Institute embodies the cosmopolitan spirit which fills the air in Cambridge.
The next morning, after our successful Iftar launch, I had the honour of calling on Lord Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, at the Master’s Lodge at Magdalene College, where he serves as the Master, joined by Zeenat and my granddaughter, Mina. Lord Williams has long been a leading advocate for interfaith dialogue and I am honoured and humbled by the support he has provided for my work over the years. It was an honour to meet him again and hear his calm words of compassionate wisdom. He remains a great voice of sanity in a world which seems to be spinning out of control and a symbol of British bridge-building efforts.
The next day, in the Cambridge City Centre, another cosmopolitan spectacle unfolded before our very eyes. Prince Harry married the love of his life, Meghan Markle, a biracial American actress who herself is a tremendous bridge between cultures and races, in a beautiful ceremony which brought the world’s cultures together and symbolised royal inclusiveness. The marriage reinforced the special relationship between the US and UK. She is like a fresh breeze and adds vitality and beauty to the House of Windsor.
It appeared during my visit that not only in Cambridge, but in all of Britain people were in love with the happy couple – even the weather was beautiful and sunny on their wedding day. There was a festival-like atmosphere throughout Cambridge, and the city centre was full of hundreds of people, packed together watching the wedding on large screens, with lots of music, singing, and clapping.
It is worth noting too that both Harry and Meghan are strongly committed to the Commonwealth. Prince Harry is a Commonwealth Youth Ambassador, and Meghan’s bridal veil featured flowers from each of the 53 Commonwealth countries. Their first rendezvous together was in Prince Harry’s “adopted home” in Botswana. Their embrace of the Commonwealth reflects their universal and inclusive worldview.
In the age of Brexit and the rise of the Far Right, it can seem from afar that doors to the outside are closing across Europe. But as my visit to Cambridge reminded me, a cosmopolitan spirit is alive and well in the UK.
(The writer 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)