10 July 2010: Journey into America
In introducing his latest book "Journey into America" at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington this evening, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, took us into the hearts and minds of Muslims throughout the world and the issues that face all of its citizens. Ahmed is considered to be "the world's leading authority on contemporary Islam" by the BBC.
The book is based on a four-year project, a study of the Muslim community in America today. Dr. Ahmed's primary calling is anthropology, and he put these skills to good use, spending a year of field work traveling the country to discover Muslims throughout the country, who number 7 million in total (including two recently elected Muslim Congressmen. With him went a group of students, to conduct a wide range of interviews everywhere from South Alabama to Utah, where he was surprised to receive a warm welcome from the Mormons.
The greatest amount of objectivity possible was necessary for them to draw any valid conclusions from their observations--a huge challenge for any group of humans or anthropologists, let alone those in an oppressed category.
He said that in South Alabama, in discussions about issues including terrorism, he was glad to have young, strong traveling companions. They were fed and sheltered by Muslim families throughout the country.
The study, Ahmed said, was the first of its kind, "rich in ethnography and international relations."
Since 9/11, as we all know, the Muslim community worldwide has suffered slings of misfortune, blamed by many others for that abomination--in the United States in particular where, he said, Muslims say that mistreatment of Jews and African Americans is condemned as a disgrace, while Muslims here are considered at a lower level.
(Strictly speaking, things are not all that black and white--those quoted should tour our prison system, from Bernie Madoff [no white-collar minimum security for him!] to the latest drug pusher to be thrown into the slammer--Jew and black--with full support of the public, including Muslims.)
In that Muslims comprise 25 percent of the world's population, at 1.5 billion, in fifty-seven countries, it behooves us to follow the guiding light of the founding fathers, to whom religious freedom was paramount to a civilized society.
The challenge is to lift this particular linen curtain and draw Muslims, American citizens after all, into mainstream society, and then to create peace between Islam and the world. That this country donates $1.5 billion a year to Pakistan as well as aid to other developing Muslim countries, proves its generosity. The conundrum, said the professor, is the contradiction between this sincere generosity and the linen curtain [my term] of suspicion, mistrust, and prejudice that so hinders the religious pluralism the founding fathers dreamed of for the future.
Such a black and white us-against-them, evil versus good, Qu'ran versus Bible, the clash of civilizations, just doesn't frame the issue effectively. The question is how to integrate our cultures, and before this can occur, we must want to.
In a very interesting conversation after Dr. Ahmed's talk, a few of us spoke about the huge burden of issues we are bequeathing to our children and grandchildren. It occurred to me that if the Earth somehow survives, they will be more than up to it. In high school my daughter's two best friends were adark-skinned Hindu and a gay WASP. I called her wider circle of friendsa rainbow coalition; she called me a racist. Science is progressing by leaps and bounds in the fight against aging and ultimately death as well as the elimination of the most lethal illnesses. New discoveries are emerging daily to address other pressing issues, including global warming and environmental pollution.
We have so much to learn from a culture that participates in society as soldiers, police, lawyers, politicians, physicians, and more. "Some of the best Americans are Muslim," said Ahmed. We must go beyond our monolithic perspective that bunches all as one--Muslims from every corner of the globe, of every skin color from Aryan to black and contrasting in countless other ways, have immigrated here and their numbers are quickly increasing.
Some ironies suggest optimism: sales of the Qu'ran skyrocketed after 9/11--were we seeking understanding in the proud American tradition or comprehension of motivations for the Attack on America? Among converts to islam in the United States, three-quarters are white women. The reason is explained in chapter 6 of Journey into America.
Asked if he was a Sufi, he answered that real Sufis do not reveal this identity. He suspects that his father was a Sufi, he said. He lamented the destruction last week of the beautiful Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan, which attracted adherents to all faiths, who were welcomed. Ahmed's Sufi orientation is explained in his preceding book, Journey into islam.
Let the "American feast" lose its ambiguity. We have all to gain in the face of such a dynamic population, whose majority is predicted to be Latino by mid-century.Becoming a true "melting pot"is the ultimate solution, in both the scientific and rational sense. As my white southern history teacher answered my question about what to do about racism, "One night it should rain throughout the world," said Ms. Betsy Prim, then of Atlanta, Georgia. "And then, in the morning, we will all wake up the same color." She chose gray. I couldn't think far enough ahead, but today I imagine that color will be mestizo, the complexion of Latin Americans.