VIEW: Akbar Ahmed’s journey

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

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.

The writer is a lawyer. He also blogs at and can be reached at



Filed under Pakistan

10 responses to “VIEW: Akbar Ahmed’s journey

  1. PMA

    A very nice and timely article by Mr. Hamadani. Mr. Akbar Ahmad is a true ambassador of Pakistan and Islam in the West. He is intelligent, articulate and tireless. Mr. Hamadani has done a great job to reintroduce him to the audience of PTH. One sincere advice to Mr. Hamadani though. Try to avoid references to yourself in your articles. Such references lower the impact of his otherwise excellent writing.

  2. T.S. Bokhari

    “Mr. Akbar Ahmad is a true ambassador of Pakistan and Islam in the West.”

    Which Islam, by the way?

    Presently the Americans, specially, and the world, generally, have problem mainly with the Paky Muslims who despite being born in Pakistan and getting circumcised as children, not knowing what it means, are not recognized by the self-styled Republic of Islam, as Muslims until and unless they submit a humiliating declaration about the faith of self and some other citizens. Thus creating a new category of Islam and Muslims, Halfi and non-halfi Muslims.

    One may ask if Mr. Akbar Ahmad is a Halfi-Muslim, the, inter alias, first and foremost qualification to represent Paky Islam and the Paky Muslims?

  3. hayyer

    I have read two books by the author but haven’t come across this one yet. I wonder whether ‘the challenge of Islam’ is an appropriate subtitle, perceived as Islam is, at present, in 9/11 terms. There is probably a prepositional challenge; the challenge being to Islam rather than of it.
    Akbar Ahmed sought to show in his earlier book, an account of his travels with his American students, the intellectual, tolerant and universal aspects of Islam. There was a naive, even ingenuous tone pervading that narrative.
    It is not a question of packaging. It would be easier for such a view to be accepted in America if in Islamic lands such was indeed the way Islam is practiced. Otherwise the Cordoba House effect may prevail.
    Any number of Hindu god-men can be found in the west peddling eastern enlightenment while their countrymen remain in the dark. Akbar Ahmad may be prone to suffer from a similarly dis-locational syndrome .

  4. bciv

    It would be easier for such a view to be accepted in America if in Islamic lands such was indeed the way Islam is practiced.

    how much less helpless is an american muslim about what happens in islamic lands than an american non-muslim?

    if it’s a lost battle, what can an american muslim do but carry on regardless, naive and ingenuous as he may seem and sound. he cannot claim to be more representative than the numerical majority, as you correctly point out. all he can do is speak for himself.

  5. PMA

    hayyer (October 15, 2010 at 7:09 pm):

    Mr. Ahmed could not be compared with “number of Hindu god-men found in the west peddling eastern enlightenment”.

    First of all he is not a “god-man”. He is a scholar and a diplomat. He recognises the need of countering islamophobic paranoia spread in the West by the Christian Right and similar vested interests. He is out there in the front assuring those willing to listen that there is no clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. Islam is a new phenomenon in the West and thus it carries a lot of apprehension about itself in the eyes of inexperienced. Here is a personal note contrary to my own advise to Mr. Hamadani. As an American I enjoy a reservoir of goodwill among my peers. Since 9/11 in this country there is always talk about Muslims. Since 9/11 I have made a point to let my peers know that I am a Muslim. A typical response is ‘No! You are not! Are you?’. It is all about perception. Mr. Ahmed and thousands others are working hard to dis-spell the negative image of Islam and Muslims created in the West by the 9/11. In the long run it is not about how Islam is practised in the Islamic lands. It is how Muslims practise their religion in the West. With time an ‘Islam in the West’ will emerge that in its behavior and not in principles will be different than the Islamic lands somewhere else. That is the Islam West will have to deal with, hence ‘The Challenge of Islam’. And just like West has come to accept and is comfortable with other non-Christian religions in the West, it will also become comfortable with this new phenomenon – ‘Islam in the West’. History will show individuals like Mr. Ahmed and Imam Rauf of Cordoba House as the forerunners in this effort.

  6. hayyer

    In that case Islam will not be a challenge in the west anyway.
    It is not just the US of course. If Islam has anything to prove as a minority faith one could draw analogies from India if they would help, but I doubt it. The Christian right is only the beginning of a movement that Akbar Ahmed and his like may help prevent ossifying into something that resembles the Hindu right; but there is Europe too where a major effort is needed.
    It was not my intention to compare the god-men with Akbar Ahmad; it was the syndrome that drew my attention. The activity is a displaced one, geographically speaking. American Muslims are not perceived as a problem, generally speaking, despite the Shahzad incident. If Akbar Ahmad succeeds in educating Americans that his version of Islam is the authentic one it can only mean that it is all wrongly done in the Muslim world. Who will make the effort to preach that in the Arabian peninsula and Iran, let alone Pakistan?

  7. bciv

    Who will make the effort to preach that in the Arabian peninsula and Iran, let alone Pakistan?

    against the might of the state? it is very difficult even though there are (slightly) more and better (as scholars of islam) akbar ahmeds in these parts too. (i mean ‘scholars’ in the proper academic sense. i don’t mean ‘ulema’.)

    the other danger is what the west needs to remain vigilant about. the kind that claimed shahzad and others. bosnia was doing fine as a true example of islam in the west rather than that of a relatively newly arrived smorgasbord. then the int’l mujahideen arrived there and now there are a couple of thousand bosnian wahabis.

    this ideology exists. it does not need great numbers (at all). it preys on identity issues even better than on social deprivation and injustice. it is not strictly limited to muslim youth (eg richard reed the shoe bomber).

    akbar ahmed and his efforts will mean not a jot if there were to be another 9/11 type success for this ideology and its tiny troop.

  8. PMA

    hayyer (October 16, 2010 at 12:07 pm):

    I will like to make two points in response.

    Mr. Ahmed is not presenting a or any “version of Islam”. Muslims universally agree on one and only one “version of Islam”. It is the practice of Islam that varies from one place to an other place geographically speaking and from one individual to an other individual on personal level. As a group ‘Muslims in the West’ in general are practicing Islam in a way different than it is being practiced somewhere else. Not in its principles but in its practice an ‘Islam in the West’ slowly and gradually is emerging as a phenomenon. Yes in that case, once initial apprehensions are gone, Islam will not be seen as a challenge in the West.

    My second point. There is no analogy between ‘Islam in the West’ and ‘Islam in India’. There Islam arrived as an aggressor whereas in the West Islam arrived literally in the ‘two suitcases’ of the immigrants. India has a baggage of eight hundred years of Muslim rule and mass conversion; a fact Hindu Right exploits to its advantage. In the West the Christian Right has no such advantage; it uses fear and bigotry as its tools, something most Westerns reject anyway.

  9. PMA

    bciv (October 16, 2010 at 3:15 pm):

    “Bosnia was doing fine as a true example of ‘Islam in the West’ rather than that of a relatively newly arrived smorgasbord. Then the int’l mujaheddin arrived there and now there are a couple of thousand Bosnian Wahhabis.”

    With all due respect I will like you to re-examine the facts and sequence of the events as they unfolded in the Balkans and in the ex-Yugoslavia in the nineties at the fall of the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia under Tito was a communist state with no provision for any religion including Islam. In that sense Bosnia and Balkans were hardly an example of ‘Islam in the West’. Also ‘Mujaheddin’ did not arrive first. They arrived at the request of the besieged Bosnian Muslims and with full blessings of the West which at that time was still fighting the communists in Europe. There is a parallel between the Balkans and Afghanistan at and before the fall of the Soviet Union. Thanks.

  10. hayyer

    I take your point. Nevertheless Islam did arrive in Europe as an aggressive force too before retreating in Spain after Charles Martel, and the inability of the Ottomans to penetrate beyond Vienna. Islam did have a history of conflict with Christianity in Europe even though the crusades were a Christian initiative.
    Americans were probably unaware of Islam in a cultural or political sense till the Black Muslim movement, and of course 9/11. I don’t think the average American had any idea of the resentment among Arabs over US support to Israel, and that too is a post Suez phenomenon.