Campuses Hold Future to American Islam
Religion News Service, USA
December 17, 2003
Commentary: By Akbar S. Ahmed
(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at
American University in Washington, D.C., is author most recently of "Islam
Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World," published
by Polity Press.)
Taking advantage of a mild fall -- perhaps another sign of global warming
-- during Ramadan, the month of fasting, I was fortunate to visit Wellesley
College and Syracuse University to encourage the young --Muslim and non-Muslim
-- to take part in an interfaith dialogue.
Two years after Sept. 11, the day that changed all our lives, seemed
good time to listen to the young and, in particular, to assess the Muslim
student community through my travel diary.
My first stop was Wellesley College, whose famous alumni include Hillary
Rodham Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Madame Chiang Kai Shek. Indeed
there is something common to those ladies, a certain strength of character.
The leaves at Wellesley were turning gold and brown and lay in thick
carpets on the winding walks when I arrived in November as the guest of
Pakistan Society of Wellesley College. The talk was attended by more than
150 people, including students from neighboring schools such as M.I.T.,
Babson College and Brandeis.
The talk was based on my book "Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously
a Post-Honor World" and divided in three parts. I tried to explain
happening and why. I pointed out the seriousness of the clashes developing
between Islam and the West and the dangers for everyone. The third part
the talk pointed to the way ahead. I suggested several steps, especially
dialogue, if we were to avoid an ongoing, unending clash of civilizations.
The questions came thick and fast. They asked about sharia -- Islamic
law -- and its implementation and impact on women; ijtihad, the mechanism
through which Muslim society is able to adapt to changing social and
political circumstances within Islamic tradition; and the relationship
between the Unite States and the Muslim world.
What impressed me most was the confidence with which these students
wanted to participate in dialogue in order to help bridge the dangerous
between Islam and the West.
The next day I was at the Harvard Coop, shared by Harvard University
M.I.T., for a presentation and book-signing session. Stephen Kennedy Smith,
nephew of President John Kennedy, warmly welcomed me on behalf of his
family and spoke of the importance of dialogue in our time in these critical
This was followed by dinner hosted by Kennedy and his friend, actor John
Malkovich. I had seen John on the screen and admired his acting, but he
difficult to spot in the audience as he can also be so convincingly anonymous.
At dinner I found him intelligent and friendly. I mentioned the difficulty
of flying in the United States with a name like "Ahmed." He
said the security was not only restricted to Muslims -- every time he
traveled with his wife and children they were thoroughly searched, before
being asked for an autograph.
Rabbi Hillel Levine, the wise and well-known scholar of religion at
Boston University, invited me home for a Sabbath meal. Levine has been
notable work in interfaith dialogue.
When he dropped me off at the airport, it took me only a few minutes
clear security. I called to thank him and said that he, as a man of God,
must have some special spiritual powers because I have never been allowed
pass through so many security checks so quickly before. He chuckled,
appreciating the joke.
Another stimulating visit was to Syracuse University in upstate New York
as a guest of the Muslim Students Association (MSA), where I spoke at
public lecture, a classroom talk, a session of the regional conference
the MSA and iftar, or the opening of the fast at the local mosque.
The Muslims here were different in ethnic composition to those at
Wellesley College. I had been invited to Syracuse by Ermin Sinanovic,
Bosnian student of Islam. Ermin's close friend Anthony Donofrio was a
convert from New York with a Jewish and Catholic background. Many of the
students were either born in America or were converts.
I sensed considerable anxiety over the case of a local Muslim doctor
had lived in Syracuse for about 30 years and had been arrested but never
charged. The students also mentioned an Iranian graduate student who went
back for a visit and is not being given a visa to return.
The visits to the different campuses reveal a young Muslim generation
concerned and actively engaged in trying to come up with solutions to
predicament. Though at times a little fearful of the dangers confronting
Western society, with youth's urgency they are quick to look for ways
head them off. Through dialogue they seek opportunities for meeting
non-Muslims in open, free-ranging talk. And that dialogue needs the
confidence that comes from hard work and intelligent use of their fine
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