When I was growing up in Pakistan in the 1960s, when the world needed superhuman acts from it leaders, I was always able to look west. I saw a land of giants with the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and others. I had learned of the founding fathers and their extraordinary vision. The unique features that this young country was constantly striving to improve fascinated many Pakistanis, like Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan who believed in minority and women’s rights. Concepts of pluralism, openness, and cultural integration put forth by Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, in the 18th century were being simultaneously challenged and enacted. I admired America from afar.
I still admire America. And when I settled in Washington DC in August of 2001, I was eager to embrace the virtues that America had shone on the world.
As a trained anthropologist, I had always been fascinated with American culture. America was a melting pot and Muslims were a part of that, however invisible they may have been. The events of September 2001, made me acutely aware that this ‘invisibility’ was temporary. Islam would become the focal point of the war on terrorism, both abroad and here in America. Muslims Americans are not the first to go through the sometimes difficult process of integration. We have seen it with African Americans, American Indians, Japanese Americans and Italians to name a few.
In 2006, I led a research team through the Muslim world, visiting 9 countries from the Middle East to South Asia to Far East Asia. I brought along a trusted team of young Americans. In essence, I was a guide for my young team to the Muslim world. We spoke to Presidents, Prime Ministers, students, Cab drivers and families in their own homes. We visited Mosques and Madrassas. Our goal was to listen to their views. We handed out questionnaires to hundreds of people in each country and wrote up the results of our trip in Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization.
With my sabbatical leave from American University approaching this fall, I decided that I would again turn to my young team, only this time asking them to be my guide. Most of my team from the last project and some fresh new blood will be taking me through my home away from home, a Journey into America.
On September 1st, 2008 my team of young American scholars and I will embark upon a ‘first of its kind’ anthropological journey throughout the United States. Through in-depth interviews, questionnaires and observations, my team and I will have the unique opportunity to examine the contemporary attitudes and perceptions of Muslims and non-Muslims in the post 9-11 era. In meeting with prominent local officials, university students, and religious leaders of all denominations, this study will analyze the American values of pluralism, openness, and cultural integration put forth by the founding fathers.
Upon exploring the cultural, social, and political fabric of the Muslim community, this project will also actively engage in rediscovering American identity. As a Muslim who believes in the vision of the founding fathers as seen in the The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, I am hopeful that we will be able to rediscover this unique vision.
For those who remain skeptical about a Muslim touring and commenting on America, I recall another foreigner who approached America with a great deal of affection and admiration. If someone with a French background can make a lasting contribution, I believe someone with a Pakistani background can certainly attempt the same. I am setting off therefore with confidence in my heart but also armed with a copy of De Tocqueville’s classic and the words of Jefferson, Franklin and Washington ringing in my ears.
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed