A Tennessean in the House of Lords
Here I was, an American from a small mountain town in east Tennessee, sitting at the heart of the most British of institutions—the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster. Chatting amicably with our host, the distinguished scholar Lord Bhiku Parekh, my gaze kept drifting upwards to the towering portraiture of the past kings and queens of Britain and the painted iconic vistas of Lord Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar and the British victory over Napoleon at Waterloo that lined the gilded walls. The vast room weighed heavy with the grandeur of royalty and empire. I felt quite small sitting quietly in the shadow of history’s great figures and moments.
I was in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords a few days ago accompanying my professor Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK, as we waited to participate in the launch of his latest project, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire which will take our research team across the continent of Europe studying Islam, the diverse Muslim communities, and European identity. We will be investigating the contemporary challenges of the Muslim community in the context of history, looking at the controversial issues associated with Islam—terrorism, sharia, the building of mosques, female dress, and immigration. The Journey into Europe project is the fourth book in a series of studies by Ambassador Ahmed examining the relationship between the West and the World of Islam after 9/11: Journey into Islam (2007), Journey into America (2010), and The Thistle and the Drone (2013).
On the evening of the launch, our team gathered under the raised sword of Richard the Lionheart astride his stone horse in front of Parliament and, upon entering through the Peers’ Entrance, was greeted with smiles and hugs by Lord Parekh.
The standing room only event, held in a House of Lords Committee room overlooking the Thames River on a sunny English day, was filled with leading lords, diplomats, academics, philanthropists, and religious leaders such as senior representatives from the Pakistani High Commission, Dr. Richard Stone, one of the most important Jewish leaders and pioneers of interfaith dialogue in Britain and a philanthropist, Malise Ruthven, the well known author of books on Islam, the noted nationalism scholar Dr. John Hutchinson of the LSE, Mohsin Akhtar, the largest Asian land lord in the UK, Dr. Muhammad Abdul Bari of the Muslim Council of Britain, and Dr. Jafer Qureshi of Muslim Aid, UK.
The launch was opened by Lord Parekh as he introduced Ambassador Ahmed and his new project Journey into Europe: “I am particularly delighted to welcome Akbar after all these years and I am delighted even more that he is going to be writing on Islam in Britain and other European countries…I want to welcome an old friend and a very distinguished scholar and somebody who has done far more than anyone I know in the aftermath of 9/11 to build bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims and giving both communities some insight into what the other is thinking.”
Ambassador Ahmed opened his remarks with Winston Churchill’s description of Europe after World War II as “a turbulent and mighty continent”. He continued, “Over half a century later, the continent is not so turbulent and it is not so mighty. And yet, I believe, sitting in the United States, that Europe has a lot to teach the world in terms of multiculturalism, how to treat the Other, and a mutual history where different societies were able to live together and contribute to art, architecture, and philosophy, such as Andalusia.” Yet, Ambassador Ahmed raised the new issues and challenges that emerged after 9/11, particularly as it relates to nations of Europe’s relations with the Muslim community. Recounting his own efforts in Washington, DC in interfaith dialogue with the Christian and Jewish communities, he saw the need to challenge negative stereotypes, confusion, and misinformation not just by building bridges but also through serious scholarship, embarking on this quartet of studies based in fieldwork that has now culminated in the Journey into Europe project. He stated, “By holding a mirror up to society, that may be the best way to change minds.” It is with this spirit of inquiry and investigation that we have now embarked on fieldwork across Europe, looking at the contemporary experience and challenges of the Muslim community in the context of European history.
The audience’s response to the ideas and theory of the project as presented in the launch was overwhelmingly positive. Dr. Bari of the Muslim Council of Britain stated of Ambassador Ahmed, “When we started the Muslim Council of Britain in the mid-1990s, we were inspired by you…Things have changed and the description that you have made on Europe and the Muslim community, I cannot agree more with that…I hope you will get the best out of us in Britain.” Dr. Richard Stone, a philanthropist and leading Jewish figure in the UK, stated, “We do have this new opportunity, I think, in Europe today of significant communities of Muslims and Jews living side by side…We are both minorities together. There are a lot of positive developments we can develop off that idea.” Lord Parekh ended the evening with the offer, “When your research is more or less complete, since you began here, you should end here.”
As an American researcher who has lived in Europe and studied its history and culture, I hope to be able to hold up a mirror up to European society through this project and help the various nations on this continent understand themselves better and their relationship to their minorities better in order to help foster a more peaceful and pluralistic society. These are challenges not only faced by Europe but also by my own country, the United States, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11 when so many saw the Muslim community through a lens of suspicion and misunderstanding. Beyond Europe, the lessons of this study can have a universal impact in teaching all of us ways to develop a truly multicultural society in which difference is not just tolerated but celebrated. The first steps towards greater understanding have been made at the House of Lords.
Harrison Akins is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service. He is currently accompanying Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, on his latest field project Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire.