Tryst with Akbar Ahmed Journey into America

It is decade old ugly story that continues to haunt the Muslims   to this day; more particularly in America.  On September 11, 2001   in a terrorist attack twin towers of the World Trade Centre collapsed. The aftermath of these attacks that found bloody expression in Iraq and Afghanistan, killing millions in these countries is a   gruesome chapter of human history. Besides the shadows of death and destruction looming large  in these two countries and chasing Muslims in many   parts of the world there are many facets of this story; some wrapped up in conspiracies theories that the collapse was a result of controlled demolition.  But there is also yet another heartrending and poignant side of this story to which people by are large are oblivious that is the strained relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States. Time is yet to heal the ten year old wounds and sourness in the relations between communities in America. ‘Journey into America: The Challenges of Islam’ by Prof. Akbar Ahmed is an insightful study of about American Muslims and their relations with majority community. The hardbound book published by the Brooking Institution spreading over 528 pages is based on an anthropological study of the author and team of his young researcher carried over a period of one year. The author and his team in their quest for finding answers the bitterness amongst communities and for identifying the balms for healing the oozing wounds visited one hundred mosques in seventy five cities. The team during the study interviewed hundreds of people including priests, imams, students and common people.

It would not be right to club this book with many other books on relations between communities, races and religious groups in the world. It is odysseys that takes us to the remotest parts of America and enables us to know about the plight and miseries of various races living in this vast country. It also provides an insight into the minds of the Muslims and among other also Native Americans, Jews and Mormons.

In first chapter of his book the author looks at the cause for Muslim bashing in America. Stating that ‘Muslims are for America what the Russians were for Churchill: a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,’ he emphasis that is ‘urgent for America to comprehended Islam, not for the sake of its ideals (which include religious tolerance) but also for geopolitical needs and strategy.’  One of the major reason for Muslims bashing as very rightly pointed by Akbar is the ignorance of Islam. Hardly Americans know about the contribution of Muslims to their society. ‘Many also are unawares about the Islam’s role in U.S. history. The first nation to recognize the newly formed United States was  Muslim Morocco and the first recorded man to visit the North America continent with a Muslim background was a North African Berber who arrived almost a century before landing of Mayflower in 1620’. Akbar writes, “our journey revealed some interesting contribution of Islam to American identity. Enumerating various contributions made by Muslims to American society he writes, Islamic principles echo in the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the father of American Transcendentalism and of Walt Whitman, to name but two literary figures by great mystic poets, including Ibn Arabi and Jalaluddin Rumi, whom Whitman echoes in his well known poem “Sault  au Monde”.

The author a former Pakistani  high commissioner to the United Kingdom, an administrator of NWFP, Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and first chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at US Naval Academy brings out very lucidly how scant information and knowledge have contributed to the ‘stereotype and prejudices that Muslims and non-Muslim Americans have to each other.’ ‘For decades Americans considered the country a melting pot in which all migrants cultures eventually became blended into larger American culture’, he writes,’ Now they see it more of a ‘salad bowl’ in which immigrants communities maintain a sense of their identity.’  Looking at the problem of accommodating Muslims in American society and how it poses a challenge to American identity he conducts his study within the framework of three   identities of American society: primordial, pluralist and predator. The study of these identities in itself is a treatise that enables a reader to look into all the complexities of the American and also provide an insight into the mindset of various American Presidents belonging to different identities. The story of America needs to be read as the story of these identities and “their struggle to form the dominative narrative”. Looking in perspective at Muslims in the United States in perspective of these identities he writes that  “These three American identities overlap and derive from the same source – namely, the first white settlers at Plymouth, and to a certain extent those at Jamestown. ‘And what does all this mean when defining Muslims. The Muslim community represents the entire spectrum of the World, because it too is defined through any one racial or ethnic group. But, accustomed to categorizing the people by race, Americans are befuddled by great variety of Muslim ethnic background and skin color. The Americans also seem wary about Muslims not recognizing any racial discrimination as author has very aptly put, ‘racial ideas continue to shape American identity.

The book analysis the consequences of the fusion of Darwinism and Christianity, and how it had spawned fear in most powerful people on earth and made richest people angry in the American society.  The book  that Akbar says is about ‘how people of different religions, cultures, and skin colors can live together when their communities have become more jumbled and juxtaposed than ever before in history’  has nine chapters and every chapter in itself is an exposition of great merit and value. In fact every page of the book cascades with scholarship that provides a far deeper insight into American society and place of Muslims in it. In chapter ‘Defining American Identity’ the author analysis all the three American identities: primordial, pluralist and predator. It has been the belief in the settlers who arrived here first that the land was given to them by God and they were at liberty to carry out every kind of depredation and kill weaker natives with impunity. These people considered compassion as weakness and compromise as defeat. It was these notions and beliefs that gave birth to predator identity. The chapter brings out Jackson legacy and brutalities against Red Indian very vividly. In this chapter the author also writes about how Islam influenced in strengthening pluralist voices in America. Some eminent American writers like Emerson were ‘influenced by the Prophet of Islam. It has been the predator identity from Jackson to George W Bush that has caused death and destruction in the world. It has been this predator identity that found a reassertion in the post 9/11 scenario. The study is first of its kind on American Muslims taken by surprise and  humbled many American anthropologist.  The part two of the book chronicles the entire spectrum of seven million Muslims living in different parts of this country. Reading through the pages of this book is like rediscovering the diversity of Muslims.  The chapter ‘African American first  Muslims retells the story of their epic journey to America and their hard and horrifying struggle for persevering their faith. Like Muslims all over the world Prophet of Islam is the role model of African American Muslims but their ‘identity is a complex matter. Akbar says, ‘they are thinking individuals who in many cases, made life-changing decision to convert to Islam. ‘christen by Day and Muslim by night’ story about a tiny community living on sparsely populated Georgia coast testifies to the struggle that this community brought as slaves from Africa have made to preserve their identity. The African Muslims believe that you can be a proud American and proud Muslim at the same time. The chapter ‘Immigrant Muslims: living the American Dream/American Nightmare gives  kaleidoscopic view of the immigrant Muslims from various parts of the world settled in this country. The author on the basis of their outlooks of Islam has broadly divided them in three categories: Mystics, Modernists and Literalists.

This chapter provides deeper insight into Muslim immigrants and their response to the post 9/11 developments. The author has very beautifully explored the variability in perceptions between African American Muslims and Immigrant Muslims about being Muslim and American. The book tells stories about the Muslim refugees from Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. There are chapter on Muslim and Jew relations. The author sees “homegrown terrorism as most worrisome phenomenon for the United States” and at the same time he believes that “lack of education, ignorance, and compromising civil liberties were the greatest threat.’

The book is a classical work that could help that would of immense help in promoting interfaith dialogue in pluralistic societies.

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