Friendship of Civilizations
by Akbar Ahmed and Melody Fox
The ceremony around the Opus Prize held this past week in Washington DC was a strangely exhilarating sight to behold. Strange because we are told that there is a clash of civilizations between the US and the Muslim world. Exhilarating because, we, the authors, witnessed America wholeheartedly embracing Muslim educators from Afghanistan and Indonesia.
Had the champions of the clash of civilizations theory – like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington – been present, they may have revised their theories. What could refute the idea of the theory more dramatically than an Afghan woman wearing a hijab who was receiving the first prize of a million dollars and, equally important, so much love and admiration from the West?
Here was the friendship of civilizations.
The Opus Prize recognizes unsung heroes of any faith tradition, anywhere in the world, solving today’s most persistent social problems. Given annually, the $1 million prize, with the runners up receiving 75k, carries a great deal of attraction, along with the honor of receiving one of the world’s most prestigious humanitarian and spiritual prizes. A Catholic university hosts the award selection and presentation each year.
This year two of the three finalists were Muslim, from two of the largest and globally significant Muslim nations, Afghanistan and Indonesia. Both face a crucial moment in history when the forces of violence in their societies must be countered with education and compassion. The prize went to Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, who has worked most of her life to promote education, especially for women and girls, in her home country of Afghanistan. The runners up were the Fahmina Institute in Indonesia for their work promoting an understanding of the Islamic faith dedicated to justice and gender equity, and Sister Carol Keehan, a Catholic nun, for her life’s work to provide affordable healthcare for the poor.
In their yearning for knowledge and its equitable promotion the finalists embraced the spirit of Ulysses, the famous Greek, as depicted by Lord Tennyson:
“To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
Actions speak louder than words. The two days over which the event was conducted brought together Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other faiths in various highly elegant and emotional events which acknowledged the common humanity of the prize winners. We were privileged to attend the glittering dinner hosted by President John J. DeGioia and the awards ceremony the following day. Dr. Yacoobi was visibly emotional as she accepted the award on behalf of the women and children of Afghanistan, emphasizing that education is the only way forward for her people. Her inspiring words will surely galvanize the next generation of student leaders to action.
The genius of the organizers was to partner with Georgetown University in organizing and hosting the event. Led by John J. DeGioia, the President of the University, Vice President Thomas Banchoff and Professor Katherine Marshall, the University opened its arms to its guests, reflecting its deep commitment to interfaith understanding and bridge-building.
At dinner attended by the Who is Who of the city, when DeGioia introduced and requested a member of the family that awards the prize to say a few words about the Opus Prize, we were moved by his humility and modesty. A God-fearing Christian from the Midwest who insists on keeping his family name separate from the prize, he told us the story of how his humble, simple parents started life with a few hundred dollars, built a business empire, and decided to give back by awarding this huge sum to those who do good works through their faith, whatever it may be.
At the dinner, Catholic priests dressed in their black robes from Georgetown were constantly moving among the tables with great hospitality asking if they could do anything for the guests, how everything was. The Indonesians, in the US for the first time, looked dazed from the jet lag but happy. Dr Yacoobi, a woman of great dignity, never stopped speaking humbly of how important and moving the experience was for her, and how she knew throughout all her difficulties, through death threats and the brutality of the Taliban, that she could never give up and must trust God and persevere.
All those who participated would have been conscious of the sense of goodwill and compassion that permeated the gatherings. They would have also been conscious that here at least, people were seeing each other as first and foremost part of a world civilization where there was respect and acknowledgment of work that was extraordinary, irrespective of the faith of the individual. Indeed, faith was recognized to be a great source of unity rather than division. Here was a display of true human compassion and spirituality, an inspirational call to the world in a time when such stories of hope are needed more than ever.
Perhaps what moved everyone who participated in the ceremonies was the struggle that the prize-winners had experienced. You could see it etched on their faces. These were not young people in the first flush of youth. They were battle-hardened warriors in the field. They had seen horrors and felt pain, but also knew that they must not abandon their mission. There was more than an echo of the last lines of Ulysses in their stories:
“We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and Melody Fox is Assistant Director for Programs at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.