Thursday, June 10, 2010

Journey into America

Maleeha Lodhi says: Dr Ahmed suggests, the Muslim community needs to face the crisis in its midst, rather than recoil in fear. At present Muslim leaders are paralysed by indecision and compromise (putting aside parts of their own identity to ingratiate themselves with the majority). Scholarship is also being marginalised in the community. He therefore proposes they launch a campaign to create pride in their community and rediscover their own central traits resting in notions of ilm, ihsaan and adl..............

Journey into fear- Dr. Maleeha Lodhi

Dr Akbar Ahmed's latest book Journey into America: the Challenge of Islam is timely, important and audacious. It is a remarkably perceptive account of the Muslim experience in post-9/11 America. In the portrayal of the six- to seven- million-strong Muslim community and its encounter with mainstream American society, the study examines the mutual fears as well as common aspirations in the context of a challenged national identity.

Currently at American University, Dr Ahmed has a penchant for trilogies or companion projects. Journey into America is no exception. Published by Brookings, the book is a follow-up to Journey into Islam and was preceded by a documentary about his travels through America.

Accompanied by a young ethnically mixed team of researchers, he journeyed for a year to over 75 cities across the country, meeting a diverse array of people and visiting more than a hundred mosques. This tour d'horizon yields a complicated picture of America which the author argues is at a crossroads. It can either continue down the path taken since 9/11 or alter its course. Americans, he says, need to make a choice between the concept of the country fashioned by its Founding Fathers, universal in spirit and pluralist and tolerant in practice, or the post-9/11 vision of leaders like former president George Bush and his deputy Dick Cheney, which is aggressive, self-centred and suspicious of, if not hostile to, "the other."

Dr Ahmed's America is one of growing gaps in understanding and trust between and within communities. His incisive and searching book exposes the reader to a world of stereotypes and prejudice. He tracks two parallel developments that play off the other. Mainstream America's failure to understand the Muslim community is exacerbated by the media's conflation of Islam with terrorism. This hostility is further compounded by official figures.

At the same time, he depicts the Muslim community to be divided, leaderless and afflicted by fear and self-doubt. Roughly one-third of the community is African American and a third each from South Asia and the Arab world. Dr Ahmed says its inability to face the "crisis within" has left it powerless and paralysed. But from this gloomy assessment he manages to extract good news: today American and Muslim leaders are becoming increasingly conscious of the need to discuss the position of Muslims in America and to address "the problem."

Fascinating is Dr Ahmed's reinterpretation of the competing influences that have shaped American identity. He traces the first and dominant primordial identity to the original white settlers of the 17th century. Fashioned by white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) settlers, this vision of a society based on justice and a rule-bound charter was however exclusionary, meant only for Christians, not Native Americans or those who were forcibly brought from Africa.

From that period also emerges a secondary identity from the pluralist tradition. This foreshadows the vision of the country's Founding Fathers based on equality between and respect for all citizens, democracy, religious freedom, and rejection of slavery.

Dr Ahmed identifies a third identity with origins in the 17th century. This is the predatory identity which unleashed an aggressive impulse that saw Native Americans as heathens who had to be eliminated. It also justified slavery. This established the notion of zero tolerance: that any threat to society had to be permanently decimated by the full use of force. Compassion was seen as weakness and compromise as defeat.

This identity, Dr Ahmed argues persuasively, asserted itself in the post-9/11 period when America under Bush embarked on two wars and a path that saw it compromising its own laws and ideals and justifying torture and Guantanamo in the name of protecting the nation. The invasion of Iraq, the Patriot Act and secret detention centres were all actions consistent with the old predatory identity.

Aggressive hyperpatriotism was embedded deep in the American psyche: reacting ferociously and excessively at a moment of peril. Dr Ahmed points out that this has expressed itself throughout history–in the treatment of Native Americans, internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War and demonisation of Muslims after 9/11.

The election of Barack Obama offered the promise of the reassertion of pluralist America, but this has yet to come to pass, says Dr Ahmed. In fact, the three different identities continue to vie for position in today's society. He is emphatic in stating that unless these competing identities are reconciled, America will not be able to build a relationship of trust and respect with the Islamic world and its own Muslim population, or be able to play an effective global role.

Dr Ahmed pulls no punches in calling on America to end its entanglement with the Muslim world, acknowledge how its foreign policy is contributing to violent extremism abroad and radicalisation at home, and promote fair solutions to the problems in the Muslim world.

He is just as forthright in identifying the weaknesses and problems in the Muslim diaspora. Dr Ahmed distinguishes between three traditions that have shaped the Muslim world, distinctions that are not theological but sociological paradigms: mystic, modernist and literalist. The first represented by Sufism emphasises universal humanism, the second by men like Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who balance modernity with religion, and the third popularly known as Salafis, who adhere strictly to tradition.

Dr Ahmed shows that the immigrant Muslim community in America has retained, in varying degrees, these three models. But African-Americans being converts, came to Islam with a clean state and were inspired by the example of Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be upon Him) as a social reformer whose concern for the poor and powerless resonated closely with their own needs and experience. This rediscovery of Islam in America inspires Dr Ahmed to hold this out as a model for other Muslims.

His profile of Muslim immigrants shows that the mystics among them easily accepted American identity in its entirety. Pluralism attracted the modernists the most. But the literalists rejected American identity as irrelevant to their lives. Of all the immigrants in the US, says Dr Ahmed, the Muslim community poses the greatest challenge to American identity. American pluralism, once a magnet for them, now "treats them with distaste and indifference." Yet this community holds the key to better relations with the Muslim world.

The book depicts the Muslim community as one in deep distress and increasingly prone to isolation, with its insecurity compounded not just by unfair media coverage but also by its own lack of leadership and self-reflection. Exacerbating this is its failure to reach out to and represent itself in mainstream America. Modernist Muslims have provided neither leadership nor a critical mass to change the community, while mistakenly dismissing literalists as being of no consequence.

Dr Ahmed suggests, the Muslim community needs to face the crisis in its midst, rather than recoil in fear. At present Muslim leaders are paralysed by indecision and compromise (putting aside parts of their own identity to ingratiate themselves with the majority). Scholarship is also being marginalised in the community. He therefore proposes they launch a campaign to create pride in their community and rediscover their own central traits resting in notions of ilm, ihsaan and adl.

Despite the dire picture presented in his book, Dr Ahmed believes that the gap between mainstream Americans and Muslims can be bridged, but it will take efforts by both sides to reconcile the different strands in their identity as well as build a better understanding of each other.

That is the challenge for America, and for Islam in engaging America. The book is riveting from start to finish–a scholarly work with the flavour of a colourful travelogue. Always frank and forthright and refreshingly bold in its conclusions. If there is one work of non-fiction people choose to read this summer, it should be this path-breaking study. Usually it is Western anthropologists who study Muslim societies. It is encouraging to see a Muslim scholar returning the compliment by studying American society.


Akbar Salahuddin Ahmed, Sitara-i-Imtiaz, or Akbar Ahmed, is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, D.C., the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute. He is considered “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam” by the BBC.


Dr Maleeha Lodhi – Fellow at the Institute of Politics, Kennedy School, Harvard University.

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.

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