Hailey Woldt, a sophomore at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., went on a 10-week, eight-country, trip as an assistant to Islam scholar Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, who was gathering research for his upcoming book, “Islam in the Age of Globalization.”
As they traveled through Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia, Woldt used her status as a young American to promote dialogue and friendship with Muslims in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East. Here she chronicles her journey and the lessons she has learned for Beliefnet.
Sitting in Indonesia as we near the end of our tour of the Muslim world, I’m reminded of the poem “Ulysses,” which my favorite professor read to me two months back to explain the nature of an epic journey in search of truth. The poem speaks of an “untraveled world whose margin fades forever …” Back then when I was beginning this life-changing experience, I foolishly thought I was mentally and emotionally prepared for every margin I was to encounter.
This trip really began in Washington, D.C., as a student in Prof. Akbar Ahmed’s “Clash or Dialogue of Civilizations” class at American University. He had inspired me to reach out and understand the Muslim world as a necessary step toward peace and understanding. I began to do research for his project, and then he offered me the chance of a lifetime: A spot on his research team traveling through the Muslim world for his project.
I jumped at the chance before I thought about finding funds, time, and consent from my parents. But I knew this was the chance to expand my horizons and challenge my inner strength.
My parents objected on the basis of safety, of course. A young American girl in the Muslim world? Then they objected on the basis of my college career. But I was firm, and I promised to pay for the trip myself.
Now here I am at the last stage of our exhausting but exhilarating journey, with two parents proud of me at home and a world of inconceivable adventures under my belt. I have many stories to tell--things that I cannot myself believe I have experienced.
Perhaps my greatest test and most important lesson came during our stay in India, when we traveled to Deoband. Deoband is the center for conservative Islamic thinking, dating back to the nineteenth century when it led the jihad against the British. Today that perspective--and Deoband's university--are flourishing despite the “war on terror” and globalization.
Prof. Akbar Ahmed and author Hailey Woldt in Deoband
Prof. Ahmed assured us that there was no danger in traveling there for research, but our Deoband tour guide, who was a leading Indian-Muslim radical, began our four-hour journey by describing his latest, best-selling book, “Jihad and Terrorism.” I asked him about the nature of the book, and he then looked away to describe his thesis, as it is custom in his orthodox tradition not to look directly at a woman.
He said that it was a justification of the usually un-Islamic fighting tactics such as those used by Osama bin Laden and other terrorists in response to what he called “American barbarism.” He argued that because America’s tactics against his people--like those seen in Abu Ghraib--were so horrific, “freedom fighters” could use extraordinary measures to combat them.
This was an unsettling conversation.
But I settled in for a long journey to Deoband, passing through villages many miles from India’s capital of New Delhi and finally bumping along a rough road to our destination. We were received by the head cleric himself upon our arrival and were immediately escorted to the front of the mosque for Prof. Ahmed’s speech. I sat in the front, in the place of honor rarely given to a woman, much less a foreign, non-Muslim woman. My head was respectfully covered in a white veil, and I avoided eye contact with the hundred or so boys facing us from the audience.
They all sat enraptured throughout the speeches. The cleric began a severe-sounding introduction in Urdu, periodically pointing a discouraging finger toward Frankie Martin--the other student accompanying Prof. Ahmed on this trip--and me. The students stood up as they asked questions of Prof. Ahmed, mostly about Iraq, Afghanistan, President Bush, and “Amerika”--the only identifiable words to me. However, they were not hostile or out of order; they sat calmly and respectfully throughout the answers.