The West and the Muslim world stand on the brink of what seems to be an impenetrable divide. The war in Iraq, American Muslims' fear of racial profiling, and desecration of the Qur’an at Guantanamohave alienated many Muslims. Yet many other Americans and Muslims believe they can still build a strong relationship.
With this in mind, Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed, who wrote the forward to “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” is traveling for two months throughout the Muslim world with two of his students--Hailey Woldt and Frankie Martin and research assistant Hadia Mubarak--to learn what Muslims think, and how they really view America.
Below is an edited travelogue, based on interviews with Beliefnet's Islam editor Dilshad D. Ali.
The Rise of "Arab Islam"
Bali, Indonesia, April 7, 2006
We're in the third phase of our journey--in East Asia, where Islam came not through warriors, not through conquerors, but through Sufis and traders and scholars. So traditionally, it's a much more gentle form of Islam. Islam here is more about Sufi-influences and tolerance and moderation, about balancing between faith and worldly aspirations. And the Muslims here are interactive with the other world civilizations, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, and Confucian philosophy.
So you can see it's a very different atmosphere for Islam than that of the Middle East, an environment of openness to Eastern faiths and cultures. The giants of this region are China, Japan, and Indonesia--the largest Muslim nation in the world with a population of 220 million people. It’s an extremely important country to monitor in terms of feelings, philosophies, and interpretations of the Islamic faith.
In recent years tension has been mounting in this part of the world between two quite distinct ideologies: There is a sharp confrontation between locals, and those who want to practice an Islam that many locals feel is imported. They call it "Arab Islam." The locals say, "Our own Islam is much more accepting and much more progressive." They say "Arab Islam" has been influenced by some of the more literalist interpretation of the religion and is alien to them.
The example they give of that confrontation is the 2005 terror attack in Bali--the perpetrators were people who were influenced by this new form of "Arab Islam," according to Bali locals. Now intellectuals in Indonesia are speaking out against this form of Islam.
For example, I gave a talk at a large university in Jakarta, attended by the former Indonesian minister of religious affairs, Dr. Maulana Muhammad Abdul Aleem Siddique. He took the opportunity of my lecture to launch an attack against "Arab Islam." He said, "We have our own culture, and we're proud of our culture. This Arab Islam makes us very uncomfortable, because it's alien to us."
America’s Role in the Fight for Islam
Bali, Indonesia, April 7, 2006
The big proverbial $64,000 question that came from this part of my journey was which type of Islam will prevail--the more aggressive type that is fueled by events like the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and the Iraqi war, or the more moderate, compassionate Islam.
The answer will depend to a large degree on the United States, and it’s truly important for Americans to understand this. If America is able to help and promote those Muslims who want dialogue and who want to promote peace and tolerance, then that form of Islam--which is the true Islam of compassion and dialogue and tolerance--will prevail. But if America continues to encourage the literalists, sometimes called confrontationalists, or followers of "Arab Islam," by constantly seeming to provoke and attack Islam, then America reinforces the position of Islamic literalists and marginalizes those who want dialogue.
This is the equation that the United States needs to understand. There is an intense debate--a kind of a battle for faith--in the Muslim world. The so-called "moderates" are absolutely marginalized, as in the case of the Muslim intellectuals in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta who are trying to promote a pluralistic society with dialogue and good faith. They've been receiving death threats through fatwas.
If America is able to reinforce the position [of the moderate Muslims of the world] through respect, seminars, conferences, actions that will strengthen them in society, then in the long term they will prevail. Because Islam essentially is the religion of balance and good faith and compassion. But if America continues with abuses such as those at Abu Ghraib and fails to improve the situation forIraqis, then the literalists will prevail because they will have the ammunition to argue that America is on the warpath against Islam, and therefore we must support a jihad against the enemy of Islam--the United States.
The Islamic debate regarding a moderate versus orthodox Islam was personified here in a very unique way through visits to three places: Aligarh Muslim University, which was founded under British traditions; Ajmer, a city rich in Sufi tradition; and the university in Deoband, which is the center of conservative Islamic thought in India.
Aligarh has always been dear to me because it follows in the traditions of Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah--the students there are quite Westernized, wear coats and ties, and have a very modern education as well as moderate Islamic studies. Deoband is the complete opposite--more like a madrassa education, with all male students wearing traditional Islamic dress. Until very recently, English was banned at Deoband, and only religious studies was offered. Now they do have some non-religious courses, like computer science, and also offer English.
Author Hailey Woldt and friends
Visiting Deoband after Aligarh was quite a revelation because I found the students at Aligarh more frustrated with their situation. With all their modern education, they were having trouble getting jobs. They also felt not of the Islamic world or of the Western one. Then in visiting Deoband, I found the students there very comfortable in their conservative setting. They had a positive outlook for their future. They were relaxed, secure, and forward-thinking.
And so, in thinking that the Aligarh representation of a balanced Western and Islamic education was the right model for Muslims, I learned that the Deoband model of conservative but positive thinking may be a better situation. The Deoband students were very interested in my lectures on dialogue, compassion and building friendships with people of other faiths. So if these orthodox students are willing to reach out to the rest of the world, then the lesson here is that a dialogue with all types of Muslims is possible, and necessary.
Muslim Views on the Iraq War March 23, 2006, New Delhi, India
Here in the Muslim world, Iraq is seen as a nation that was strong and legitimate, but now is in turmoil and anarchy. Yes, Saddam was an evil dictator, but Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia feel the situation for Iraqis is worse now. And they see a conspiracy--that this was deliberately done to destabilize the Muslim world in the Middle East.
What is so tragic for me, who has talked about democracy so long, is that I’ve used Saddam as a model of a tyrant long before it became fashionable in the West. I always spoke how his socialist ideas imposed tyranny on Muslim societies, because his first victims were always Muslim scholars. And the saddest thing to see now is that in the Muslim world -people are saying that Saddam’s type wasn’t too bad. At least you knew you had one tyrant, and you had stability. But now you have total anarchy. Iraqis are scared that people may come into their home and take someone hostage. If they go to work, will they come back?
And the most frightening thing is that there seems to be no end in sight. And Muslims here see no viable solution. You have an election, and it’s not working. America sets up a government, and it’s not working. Law and order is just not taking hold. And Iraq’s turmoil is spreading throughout the region: You have Iran and its nuclear crisis developing on the Eastern front. You have Syria identified as part of the “Axis of Evil” by America.
Even here in South Asia, the war in Iraq is a main topic, and feelings here are quite strong that American should not be there.
Muslims say America is the problem not the solution, which is opposite of what the Bush administration feels. It’s a tragic misreading of history on both sides. You get all these efforts of the American media showing how great Iraq is doing--new schools, new parks, how Marines are handing out sweets and so on. Then in the Muslim world you’ve got the feeling that there’s nothing but death and destruction because of America. Two opposing views.
Muslim Views on the Iraq War, Part II
March 23, 2006, New Delhi, India
It’s amazing how strong the feeling is in India and other countries we’ve visited about this war being waged to pull apart the Muslim world. It never was about weapons of mass destruction. There’s no sense that America was bringing democracy. People in the Muslim world, I’m finding on this tour, are not only very alert, but they are very conscious of world politics. They’re looking at the world, they’re watching the news, and they’re making their own assessments.
So they’re arguing that while America talks of democracy, which is great, and human rights, which are great, in practice it supports dictators. And this thought is repeated everywhere I visit. Here in India, Muslims are saying that America brought in Saddam early on. They say the reason he’s only being tried for a very small number of crimes is because Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had supported Saddam previously and had given him the latest chemicals andequipment. So if Saddam is tried for bigger crimes, America’s complacency will come out. I don’t know if this argument is right or wrong, but this is how the Muslim public perceives it.
In fact Muslims in the Middle East are saying that a tyrant like Saddam was preferable to the anarchy that is Iraq now. So right now the mood is bleak, it’s angry, and Muslims here have one request: America should get out.
Muslim Views on the Iraq War, Part III
March 23, 2006, New Delhi, India
What’s most tragic, in my own view, is that Iraq is now set up for another dictator to take over. I feel that America has built up one force alone in Iraq in the last three years, and that is the security force. And a number of these guys are from the former security services of Saddam. Many of them are old Bathists. Old habits die hard.
These security forces, I believe, are thinking this: We had a stable, strong nation for three decades. We were known in the world. We had the most powerful army in the Arab world, and now we are reduced to a joke. And so I think they are looking for a local young colonel--a young Ghaddafi or a young Saddam--to declare a military coup to bring back stability. And America will be pleased, just as they were when Gen. Pervez Musharraf took over in Pakistan. And that, to me, will be the ultimate irony, because you’re back to square one.
I frankly don’t see any other choice right now, because democracy is not working, and law and order is not taking root, and people are looking for answers. This is a bleak scenario, and I fear that people will be happy to have a strong man take control. And if that happens, then it’s an indictment of the terrible costs America and Iraq has paid--for the several thousand Americans who have died and for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died.
The questions that keep coming up from nearly every Pakistani we meet are: Why is the West equating terrorism to Islam? Why is the West taking a few people of violence who are outside the law and saying they represent all Muslims? Pakistanis are very unhappy about this. They believe that there may be a conspiracy against Islam.
In our meeting with President Pervez Musharraf, he tackled these questions by presenting three points. The first point he made was that his identity is that of a Muslim. Musharraf said, “I may not be a very orthodox Muslim, but I am a Muslim. And I believe Islam is compatible with modernity.”
Prof. Akbar Ahmed and Pakistan's Pres. Musharraf
And that led him to his second very important point: that Muslims do not have to become Westernized in order to become modernized. For example, westernization means that Muslims must behave like those in the West--have Western values, dress like people in the West. President Musharraf said to me, “We have our own culture; we have our own history. We are proud of that. We must be modern; we must have modernity, which means civic government, a good system of administration, justice, good education, democracy. All these features are characteristic of modernization, and that we can have as Muslims.
“Islam is not incompatible with modernity,” President Musharraf emphasized. Then he pointed to the war on terror and to his own role. He said, "I have put my neck on the line. I am a victim of assassination attempts, but I believe in what I am doing because I am doing it for Pakistan. It is also beneficial to America and the West, because it helps if I can control terrorism." But he emphasized that Pakistan was most important to him.
His third point was about how Pakistan can play a pivotal role in the Islamic renaissance. "We are the leaders of the Muslim world." President Musharraf said to me. "We are the only nuclear power. We have a population of 160 million. Our geopolitical situation makes us absolutely vital to understanding the Muslim world. And we have a history of leading the Muslim world in terms of [new] ideas. So Pakistan cannot be ignored."
I asked President Musharraf about the negative Western perception of madrassas (Islamic religious schools). He said, “We are reforming the madrassas. We are introducing subjects other than religion, so we are studying religion [and] subjects like geography and history and other religions, not just Islam. Even computer training—in madrassas!”
I asked him why he doesn’t close the madrassas like many Westerners demand. He said, “In the West, they think the madrassas mean a terrorist camp. [But] all madrassas are not violent or extremist. Some are, but not all. I have one million students in madrassas. Now if you close all [of them], you’ll have one million kids out there in the street.
“So what I am doing is--by persuasion, by discussion, bringing them into the mainstream--helping them to raise their standards and become absorbed in the mainstream,” President Musharraf said to me.
And I found him quite persuasive. He seems to be genuinely grappling with the problems and not just trying to please Americans. He pointed out, “Look, I have a lot of critics in Pakistan who say I’m pro-Western. But I’m simply trying to bring my nation more in line with the vision of [Pakistan's founder] Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who believed in a modern, democratic society based in human rights and women’s rights and so on.”
But building a Pakistan that is secular and Islamic, but not too Westernized is a difficult task. I asked him how it was possible to do this. He answered, “So far, Islam meant rituals. So far the obscurantists are interpreting Islam.” For example, the recent riots in Pakistan’s northern region between Shi’as and Sunnis began because one group was praying with their arms across their chests, and the other group objected to that. “That’s the kind of Islam we have to avoid,” President Musharraf said to me. “The defenses of Islam are progress and compassion. In order for that to happen, the scholars of Islam have to be engaged so that the people in the streets begin to appreciate what Islam really is.”
I gave a speech to about 500 people from all walks of life. And in my speech I tried to pick up the theme of societies under siege. You see, Muslims are complaining about being persecuted here. And I said, “You’re absolutely right.” I talked about Muslims feeling under siege in Palestine, in Kashmir, in Bosnia. Muslims are feeling their Prophet is being attacked. I spoke of Muslims being kept in prison camps and being humiliated and tortured--of Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
And all this adds to a sense of Muslim anger. But then I pointed out that there are the other communities—like Americans after 9/11—who feel under siege. And I said something that very, very few Muslims will say in the Muslim world or anywhere: Israelis feel under siege. They are surrounded by 300 million Arabs, and many Arabs talk about exterminating Jews. This is unacceptable, because already the Jews have faced such persecution. So I asked that Pakistan-Muslim audience, “How do you think the Jews feel being under siege? Several world societies are continuously feeling persecuted.”
So we have to be much more accepting, much more tolerant and compassionate. As a Muslim, my duty is to uphold the holy Prophet and the Qur’an--both which talk about compassion and bridge-building.
The Letdown of President Bush’s Visit
Islamabad, Pakistan, March 15, 2006
In coming from Jordan to Pakistan, we found two things: We are in a land with huge numbers. Jordan’s population was five million. Then we arrive in Karachi with a population of 15 million--in just one city. You have these tenements and slums literally taking over the whole of Karachi. So there’s population, there’s poverty. But in spite of all that there’s a great vitality here, in spite of Pakistan's military government--we mustn’t ignore that. Pakistanis feel that they can be role models, and that America doesn’t get that.
Pakistanis are feeling a little bit of a backlash because the recent visit of President Bush. They felt that his love affair with India had completely diverted him from Pakistan. He had signed the nuclear deal there, and then he came to Pakistan and lectured President Musharraf about democracy.
And this wasn’t perceived well at all! There’s a constant barrage of editorials that are very critical, saying Pakistan has been forgotten. The joke is that Pakistan has been treated like a wife with whom the husband is fed up—and now she’s brushed aside because he’s enchanted by this mistress of his across the border called India and is prepared to give India anything.
And for the skinny, loyal wife that is Pakistan, there are lectures on greater efforts on the war on terror and lectures on democracy and nothing else. There is a sense of being let down, of being abandoned by an old ally.
Everywhere we go, we ask Muslims questions about who their role models are, from contemporary life and the past.From contemporary life, the answers vary. For example, here in Jordan they may say, “The king is our role model.” In Syria they may say, “The president of Syria is our role model.”
But from the past, every Muslim--whether he’s a mufti, a sheikh, or a secular Muslim--will say that their number one inspirational person is the Prophet of Islam. And I would say that answer was almost 100 percent. Now what does this mean for American policymakers?
It means that if you want to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, which is what America is trying to do--and spending a lot of money trying to do--and you disrespect that person, then Muslims will not be happy. (So consider this when you wonder at the veracity of anger Muslims have for the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.)
Whatever logic is argued (about the freedom to spoof the Prophet), a lot of Muslims simply will be mad. These are conclusions that hopefully will benefit those people who want to know what to do about dealing with Muslims. Of course the U.S. had no involvement with this controversy, but it still is a good lesson to remember when we want to understand Muslims and what they hold important.
In Damascus, I was asked to speak at the Mosque Zahra. One of the very prominent religious scholars of Damascus asked me to give a khutba (Friday sermon) to more than 5,000 people.
So before I give the khutba, I must consider that there’s a lot of anti-American feeling. You can’t conceal that. So, bearing that in mind, I say, “America is just like Islam. You can’t consider it a monolith. Just like if Americans are looking at Islam like a monolith--that’s not correct. Americans consist of very, very different kinds of communities and people.”
Then I gave the examples of Bishop John Chane of the National Cathedral in Washington and Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig of Washington Hebrew Congregation--these are two great friends of mine. Together, we are involved in having a dialogue. These two wonderful gentlemen have truly reached out to the Muslim community.I gave the example of Professor Judea Pearl, the father of Danny Pearl, and the dialogue we’re having. I said these are extraordinary Americans who are reaching out, just when you think the whole of America is on the warpath against Islam.
Yes, policies can change; foreign policies must alter. But these are warm, wonderful people, and we need to understand that there are people who are prepared to have a dialogue and build friendship a across these gaps.
And I must say, speaking of the dialogue works every time. Remember, we are wedged in right now in the Middle East, where on one side we’ve got the Palestinian ongoing crisis as they lock horns with Israel. People feel very strongly about that. On the other side you’ve got Iraq in a complete mess, and people feel very strongly about that. So in that context, to simply be able to talk about dialogue and to refer to Bishop John Chane and Rabbi Lustig and Judea Pearl is a huge, huge leap of imagination.
Anti-Americanism and Mistrust
Amman, Jordan, March 7, 2006
Americans have no idea how strong the anti-American sentiment is in the Arab world. For example, no one believes here that the mosques in Iraq were blown up by Muslims. Because they say no Muslim would blow up another Muslim’s mosque, whether Shi’a or Sunni--and certainly not a mosque which has stood for a 1,000 years and which housed the remains of a descendent of the Prophet. Even when all the ferocious conquerors came to that part of the world, that mosque was never damaged. And suddenly it has been blown up. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of resentment
And then take the example of our trip to Turkey. Turkey has been one of the strongest allies of the United States of America, a regular strong supporter. But the anti-Americanism in Turkey is like a runaway train. It is so sharp that the only place we felt uncomfortable was in Turkey. Here in Jordan, and other stops we’ve had in Arab countries have been much better. Anti-Americanism is very strong in the Arab-Muslim world as well, but still they are willing to listen to us and I felt a sense of hope. In Turkey it was different.
Right now the number one film in Turkey is “The Valley of the Wolves Iraq.” The film is about a Turkish Rambo who’s on the rampage and takes on the American soldiers in Iraq. The soldiers are shown as evil villains. That’s the kind of backdrop that we are trying to understand for our project.
But Muslims are responding to us. Hope is not lost. In Jordan I was invited to give a talk at the Royal Institute of Interfaith Affairs, and 200 of the elite turned up. When I talked of Bishop Chane and Jean Case of the Case Foundation and Judea Pearl and their support for me, one of them got up and said, “Why are you praising Judea Pearl? He lost a son, but what about the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have died?”
To them I replied by asking Frankie and Hailey to stand up and show themselves. I said, “This is your answer. This is the face of America I would like you to see. It’s a positive, friendly, intelligent face. These youngsters are here of their on volition to reach out and understand you better. The message they want to bring back home is of better understanding, and of respect for the Muslim world. Because above all, I’m sensing that there is a sense of loss of honor, loss of respect, loss of dignity for Muslims, that America is not giving them that.