Originally published in the Daily Times.
That both Muslims and the US have to come to grips with each other is now abundantly clear to both sides. Neither is going anywhere any time soon, which makes the situation of Muslims living in the US all the more important. It is their responsibility more than anyone else’s to explain Islam to Americans and America to Muslims
The recent convictions of Aafia Siddiqui and Faisal Shahzad, both once international students in the US, has brought a cloud of suspicion on all Pakistanis travelling to the US. This is a terrible prospect for those of us — like this author — who have over the years enjoyed American hospitality and who wish Americans no harm. It is a tragedy since the cultural exchange between these two populous and important nations is and can be a dialogue amongst civilisations and faiths.
Perhaps the most striking contrast to Aafia Siddiqui and Faisal Shahzad can be found in the efforts of Dr Akbar S Ahmed — that indefatigable defender of Islam and Islamic tolerance. Pakistan’s diplomat and more famous for his film on the life of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Akbar S Ahmed, the Ibn-e-Khaldun Chair at the American University, has done more than any other living Pakistani to challenge perceptions of Pakistan and Islam in the West. He is not the first though in the US. We would do well to remember the intellectual par excellence, the late Dr Eqbal Ahmad who, through his work and interaction in the US, won numerous admirers. His interviews with David Barsamian echo to this day for sheer relevance and clarity of vision the man had. There is one main difference though. While Eqbal Ahmad came from a tradition of resistance and the Left, which often left him at odds with his critics, Dr Akbar S Ahmed is a hardboiled civil servant, polished by the dictates of diplomacy. Even Daniel Pipes, who is regarded a Muslim-baiter of sorts, is very careful when dealing with Akbar S Ahmed. Consequently, Dr Ahmed has the ear of those who matter in Washington, including President Obama. He interacts with a broad spectrum from the establishment to anti-establishment, from Right to Left, and this makes him a unique anthropologist.
His recent book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam should be prescribed reading for all Pakistanis travelling to the US, especially for an education. It gives a remarkable account of identity formation in America, its numerous waves of immigration and also within the American Muslim subset, which are the subsets of two distinct large sets. Dr Ahmed’s journey, where he was accompanied by a team of enthusiastic researchers, is in many ways more monumental than the 19th century French politician and author Alexis De Tocqueville’s journey and work on the US, which seems to have inspired Dr Ahmed. Tocqueville had come from France at a time when the US had already inspired one revolution and a republic there. There was no gap there to bridge unlike the festering fistula that now separates the Muslim world and the US. Akbar S Ahmed seems to have dedicated his entire life to the cause.
That both Muslims and the US have to come to grips with each other is now abundantly clear to both sides. Neither is going anywhere any time soon, which makes the situation of Muslims living in the US all the more important. It is their responsibility more than anyone else’s to explain Islam to the Americans and America to Muslims. In the many identities and permutations that Dr Ahmed has examined in his book, three strike me as particularly unhelpful in this regard. The first one is that of a literalist Muslim who is incapable of thinking original thoughts and therefore is incapable of reaching out to other cultures and faiths. The second is the Muslim who, in an overzealous zeal to integrate at all costs loses — as is the case with Dr Ahmed’s representative sample — any and all credibility he might have with the community. The third one is what has been dubbed as the Americans with predator identity, something that this book traces back to the times of Winthrop and Josiah Winslow. It is ironic that the foremost practitioners of social Darwinism in the US are those who vociferously oppose the scientific theory of Darwinism. All this makes for a clash of fundamentalisms, with a great majority not just of Muslims but also Americans being a prey for all sides.
Dr Ahmed and others like him stand firmly in the middle. They do not reject modernity and the West but also claim inspiration from the principles of Islam and teachings of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). In doing so, they are often under attack from all of the three groups mentioned above. They are abused by literalist Muslims for not being Muslim enough, by overzealous integrators for being too Muslim, and by the third group for harbouring terrorist sympathies secretly. And yet the sanity and the future not just of inter-communal relations in the US but between the East and the West now hinges on the success of these dedicated middle-grounders. Only they have sufficient credibility to play bridge-builders.