BOOK REVIEW:  Journey Into Islam (Akbar Ahmed)

Sheila Musaji

Posted Jun 28, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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BOOK REVIEW:  Journey Into Islam (Akbar Ahmed)

Akbar Ahmed’s Journey Into Islam Offers A Blueprint To Avert A Clash of Civilizations

by Sheila Musaji

Professor Akbar Ahmed is the former Pakistani High Commissioner to Britain and member of the faculties of Harvard, Princeton and Cambridge, current chair of Islamic Studies at American University.  His new book,

Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization

is perhaps the most important book published this year on the topic of avoiding a clash of civilizations. 

I have seen one review of the book, by Tony Blankley, that used negative terms such as “disheartening” and “heartbreaking” to describe Prof. Ahmed’s groundbreaking work.

I am truly puzzled as to how Tony Blankley could have come to this negative assessment of Prof. Ahmed’s book, and am dismayed that it has been reprinted and linked to so widely on the internet.  Prof. Ahmed does say that we are facing a crisis, and that we must do something immediately to challenge the status quo and avert a clash of civilizations or it may be too late for all of us.  However, his overall view is clearly that this is possible and that there is hope if we rely on education and dialogue.

Prof. Ahmed is in a unique position — he is both an American and a Muslim with impeccable academic credentials, and experience in diplomacy.  He is widely respected in the Muslim community as well as the academic and diplomatic communities.  He is exactly the right person to establish dialogue between both sides in this current crisis of understanding and all of us can only hope that it is such voices that governments and opinion makers will listen to.  Actually, he would be a prime candidate for President Bush to appoint as envoy to the Islamic Conference.  And, we can only pray that Tony Blair will call on Dr. Ahmed’s expertise in his new position as special envoy to the Middle East.

I hope that in considering whether or not to read (and act upon) this important book, readers will listen to more positive opinions.  I did a little research and found many more positive assessments of this book, for example Khalid Hasan  in the Daily Times and in a Guardian book review by Edward Mortimer who sees the book as: ”... a sustained and passionate argument, which by the end becomes an almost desperate plea for better mutual understanding between the west and the Islamic world.”

Because I believe so strongly in the importance of this book and its message, I would like to share these positive takes on the book from a variety of sources, and also share a few remarks about the book from Prof. Ahmed himself.

I listened to an interview with Prof. Ahmed on NPR and and during that interview, Dr. Ahmed himself talked about how hopeful he felt when even Aijaz Kazmi, an individual who began by expressing positive statements about al Qaeda and terrorism, by the end of their visit had changed his attitude dramatically due to dialogue.  Aijaz Qasmi, whose chilling words, “the actions of Osama bin Laden, Hizbullah, Hamas, and the Taliban, even if they kill women and children, are perfectly justified in Islam” he uses to open the book. 

Many of those who see this book as expressing hope for the possibility of change point to this story about Aijaz Kazmi.  Edward Mortimer notes that: “By the end of the book he has become general secretary of an Islamic peace foundation, an enthusiastic supporter of Ahmed’s irenic message, and thus a showcase for the healing power of dialogue, “at last able to put a human face to what he had earlier called ‘American barbarians’”.

Prof. Ahmed uses a model that includes three main streams of thought prevalent in the Muslim world.  Regarding this model, Ishtiaq Ahmed points out that:  “The author’s main interest in this study is not to analyse the economic consequences of globalisation, though he does take up that aspect too. He is interested in throwing light on how Muslims perceive globalisation in cultural terms. He continues to apply a framework of analysis which he has used in the past for categorising Muslim opinion. These are the orthodox (Deoband model), modernist (Aligarh model) and Sufi (Ajmer model) modes of thinking and reasoning. I think this spectrum is quite adequate to capture a wide range of Muslim opinion, but scope should also be provided to include secular and rationalist opinion.”

Rev. Canon John L. Peterson also sees understanding these three streams of thought in the Muslim world as important.  “To understand Islam, it is important to remember these three different movements. The differences between and among them are what define the struggles within Islam. One of the significant contributions Journey into Islam is going to make is helping non-Muslims understand the complexities of thought that comprise Islam. There is no such thing today as a monolithic Islam any more than there is a monolithic Christianity or Judaism.”

Eboo Patel in Middle East Online sees this book as a resource to use in the debate against The Clash of Civilizations theory (which he sees as one of the most dangerous theories of our time).  “But ultimately, this is a book of hope. First and foremost, Ahmed has hope in all the traditions that he is a part of – Islam and the West, South Asia and America. He suggests that each return to its own first principles – democracy and equal rights for America, knowledge and balance for Islam – implying that, at bottom, these civilisations are not only compatible but can learn a great deal from one another.”

Juliana Geran Pilon in World Politics Review says:  “He argues for compassion and dialogue as the only way to avoid a tragic clash among the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His new book, “Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization,” published by the Brookings Institution, is a fascinating personal account of his travels last year into the heart of Islam, spanning the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. Through in-depth discussions with high-level officials and religious figures as well as ordinary people, Ahmed offers a nuanced picture of a complex world that alternately fears and misunderstands America, yet seems eager to engage with us if given a chance.”

In an interview with Knowledge Without Borders, prior to the publication of the book, Prof. Ahmed made three important points:  1)  “I have been pushing the young to go out and become the real ambassadors from America. The youth are the ones who should be tagged to go out and represent the United States to the rest of the world. They are American, love America and can represent the true values of the U.S. instead of letting foreign policy dictate what the rest of the world thinks about America. On my trip, a group of young Americans accompanied me through 8 different countries. While we did encounter high levels of anti-American feelings, these feelings softened as we talked with them.”.  2)  “So we really need to ask: Has the clash theory, which has so far dominated foreign policy in the United States, really succeeded? Has it gotten us what we wanted or should we now explore an alternative paradigm?”  3) “If we are able to find the common ground between the faiths, learn about each others and work together on issues such as terrorism, global warming, genuine democracy in the Muslim world, etc. then we may be able to avert a clash of cultures.”

In an interview by Shilpi Paul in The Internationalist, Prof. Ahmed said:  “The young generation of Americans can change the world. They are bright, open, thirsting to do something. One, they need to understand what’s going on in the Muslim world. 90% of information from the media is so negative; they can’t have a real understanding. They need to read, visit, and talk. Two, they need to create some bridges, with scholars, students. Three, they need to start looking at their own society and asking some hard questions. Where is this country going? Are we compromising the ideals that have created us as the great United States of America, the greatest, free-est, and most wonderful democracy?”

And, he further stresses his hopefulness that change is possible:  “I am when I think of all the wonderful people who are committed to dialogue and discussion. That gives me hope. The pessimism is, against this, you have a tidal wave of ignorance, prejudice and hatred, on both sides. When hatred and prejudice are out of control, this is the slippery slope which leads to anarchy and chaos for civilization. On the heels of one hatred comes another hatred. When you get all the Muslims and put them in internment camps, who’s next?”

A synopsis of the book on Powell’s Books noted:  “Lamentably, he found high levels of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism and a widespread perception that Islam is under attack from the West. But he also brought back reason for hope. He returned from his groundbreaking travels both impressed with the concerned, kind nature of the individuals he encountered and invigorated with the vitality and passion they displayed.

Journey Into Islam

makes a powerful plea for forming friendships across religion, race, and tradition to create lasting peace between Islam and the West.”

Maureen Fiedler of Interfaith Voices points out:  “Policy recommendations emanating from the trip and the book include: the U.S. government’s reaching out seriously to the Muslim world to listen and engage in serious dialogue, finding ways to overcome stereotypes and show that the U.S. respects Islam as a religion, a program of economic generosity that shares more educational resources and fewer instruments of war, and the United States’ living up to its own ideals of democracy, civil rights and civil liberties.  Dr. Ahmed believes that the U.S. State Department should field ambassadors who are as respectful, dignified and dialogic as his four young companions on this journey into Islam.”

Our Voices Together sees the book as a Journey Towards Respect:  “Journey into Islam ends with a call to solutions that “take into consideration the interconnectedness of the world, the fact that everything happening in the United States is making an almost immediate impact in the Muslim world, and vice versa.” Our Voices Together is proud to be one of the examples Dr. Ahmed holds up as on the right path towards building a better world. His appeals for actions based in justice, honor and dignity to replace those that come from anger are logical and firmly based in an understanding of the people in the conflict. His advice that Americans must not distance themselves from the injustices of the world must be heeded. His case that true dialogue is essential to beginning the process to stop hate is more than compelling; it is indeed the best way and the only way.”

This is an important book about the possibility of building bridges and the hope that change is possible with dialogue and mutual understanding.  I can see no way this is “heartbreaking” or “disheartening”.  This book should be in the library of every mosque in the U.S. and a dialogue topic in every interfaith dialogue group.  It should also be read carefully and acted upon by politicians and diplomats.

I went to my local Borders book store this morning to purchase a few additional copies of this book to distribute to share with individuals who may need a “nudge” to enter into dialogue with “the other”, and they had no copies on the shelves.  I asked for help and they checked all the Borders in the Saint Louis area and found that it is no longer on the shelves in any of their locations, and is only available by special order.  I hope that this is not a trend nationwide. 


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