By Akbar Ahmed
Islamic Studies professor, American University
President Obama delivered a major speech Thursday calling for “A New Beginning” for relations between the Muslim world and the United States. The symbolic visit to Cairo to deliver the speech, I believe, can significantly contribute to the dialogue of civilizations.
We know that there are many misperceptions and perceived conflicts between the Muslim world and the West, especially since 9/11. In order to contribute and help bridge the gap, which by many indications has grown since 9/11, I decided to take a trip through the Muslim world with a team of young Americans to talk to Muslims from all across the spectrum of society.
In 2006, I traveled to the Middle East, South Asia, and Far East Asia and met with people from the full range of Muslim society. We let Muslims speak for themselves and learned something interesting: when we asked what the greatest threat to the Muslim world is, the most popular answer in each country was the same, misconceptions of Islam in the West. Many Muslims were worried that there was a clash of civilizations and that Americans, in their hostility toward Islam, which they said they witnessed in Western media reports, were leading the charge. The arguments mirrored those I heard in the United States in the years after the 9/11 attacks.
President Obama’s speech this morning was a strong statement to Muslims around the world that America is not engaging in a irrevocable clash of civilizations and that we should be building bridges of friendship, respect, and understanding rather than tearing them down. This is a strong step toward bridging the gap between the US and the Muslim world.
However, the statements and actions will have to be repeated time and again across the world to make an impact and reverse the perception that Islam is under attack. This cannot happen not only at the executive level. This will have to happen on the grassroots level and we will need many, many people involved.
As President Obama said, “it is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward, to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share.” I believe this speech can help jump-start the conversation that many here at On Faith have been engaged in for years.
With help, I believe that the clash of civilizations can be averted. With this is mind, I have spent the better part of the past year traveling around the country to learn about America. I have studied the Muslim communities throughout the country, visiting over 75 cities and spending time in over 100 mosques with much of the same team that traveled through the Muslim world with me.
We filmed our travels and interviews and have completed a documentary that will accompany the book that I am currently writing. We are eager to show the film, as we believe it will go a long way towards building understanding and furthering the dialogue of civilizations.
Journey into America will premiere at the Annual ISNA Convention, (the Islamic Society of North America) at the Washington Convention Center on July 4th.
A Panel following the field will consist of luminaries including Congressman Keith Ellison, America’s first Muslim Congressman, Imam Magid of the ADAMS Center in Northern Virginia who Time Magazine has called the “American imam” , Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of INSA and Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation.
In our travels, we have met the whole diversity of American Muslims from familiar groups like the Arabs of Dearborn to those perhaps not as familiar such as the 60,000 Bosnians in St. Louis or the 40,000 Nigerian Muslims in Houston. We have interviewed Somalis in Nebraska, Cambodian Muslims in Santa Ana, California, and Cuban Muslims in Miami. America’s Muslim population, like America itself, is stunningly diverse.
Muslims in America are still concerned with perception and frequently cite the media, and like those in the Muslim world, they are trying to find ways of improving relations with mainstream America.
I believe our film does this: it shows each side how the other is living in an attempt to improve relations. It takes the viewer inside Muslim (and non-Muslims) into communities across the US from rural towns in Texas and West Virginia to inner city Detroit and Indian reservations in Arizona.
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, former High Commissioner from Pakistan to the UK, is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington DC, and the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis. His most recent book is Journey into Islam and his current project, “Journey into America,” is an unprecedented study of Muslims in America.