By: Dr. Amineh Ahmed Hoti
I am on an unprecedented journey called ‘Journey into America’. My father, Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University (Washington DC) and has been traveling on a major study through the length and breadth of America with his three male and two female American students to understand attitudes to Islam and to study American identity.
In this last leg of the over eight-months Journey, I have participated in the team work to find something I did not expect: a degree of diversity I am surprised by. At different periods the team met an array of people from diverse communities such as the Sunni, Shia, Ismaili, Bohra as well as Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian, notably the Archbishop of Houston who especially prayed for all communities to understand each other and particularly for the Abrahamic communities to work together towards global peace and harmony with greater love and respect that the God of Abraham himself calls for.
For a Muslim woman like myself who has engaged in inter-faith dialogue with the ‘Ahl-e-kitaab’ (The People of the Book: Jews, Christians and Muslims) in the UK, I see mutual respect and deeper understanding as vital for improving relations between communities. We all want to leave for our children a peaceful world, not one of hate and misunderstanding and narrow-minded bigotry. This was to me not only an inter-faith mission as a person who cared for the world and global peace, but as a practicing Muslim it is, as I understand it, following Quranic instructions: (see, for example, Surah 2: Verse 62 and Surah 3: Verse 64). I am, therefore, grateful to God and also to my father for giving my children the opportunity to join the team on this Journey.
During the Journey in Texas, I was impressed by the speed, consistency and adeptness of this young American team harmoniously led by a Muslim Professor: at times the team would divide their work and my father and some of his team members would go for one interview such as to the Zoroastrian Community Centre and the Ismaili Centre and the other half of the team would visit three other local mosques to fill in questionnaires for the book that will accompany this project. At other times we would meet up such as on University campuses and a dinner given by the famous novelist Bapsi Sidhwa who I saw as lending her warmth and hospitality to the pool that is American identity. Each time, each one of us had to comment on the project and answer questions from curious and engaged audiences.
In answer to many questions, some asked by Muslims, members of the team like Frankie, Jonathan, Hailey and Craig would answer from a sensitive and informed point of view.
To me, the success of this project was measurable by this fact that the team of American students had learnt to walk in the shoes of ‘the Other’ and to see the world from the perspective of another. In contrast and sadly at a lunch meeting with a number of elderly oil-rich solid-gold-wearing-Rolex Texan tycoons an interview with them revealed a sequence of stereotypes and prejudices about certain communities like Muslims which were derived largely from media clips and partial ill-informed images of ‘the Other’. This was reflective of an attitude towards the Other which, at its worst, painted other cultures and other peoples as a whole in terms of ‘not-one-of-us’, ‘threatening’, ‘evil’, barbaric/savage/primitive and so forth – Native Americans, Afican Americans, waves of immigrants including the Irish, Jews and now, Muslims, had experienced the brunt of such negative attitudes. I came away from that lunch-meeting with an unsavory sour flavour, but was rewarded by the sweet thought that on the other hand here was a dynamic group of young Americans trained, cultivated and educated by one of the most wise and caring figures of our time (called a ‘sage’ by the Chief Rabbi of the UK and ‘the leading Muslim voice’ by the BBC) to look responsibly, to understand, to seek knowledge through ethnographic fieldwork and participant observation and only then to draw informed conclusions that are ethically sound and sensitive and through this strategy to become sources of building bridges between cultures, religious groups and nations. I saw this as a gift of compassion, a legacy of responsibility, an ideal model not only for the benefit of America but for all citizens of the world who care for our global, shared and diverse world.
Dr Amineh Hoti Director of Dialogue, Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations. Executive Director, Society for Dialogue and Action, At Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. —