Between Hope and Despair: Living as a Muslim in
the United States
Religion News Service, USA
May 21, 2003
by Akbar Ahmed
(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic
Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author of "Islam
Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World," published
by Polity Press.)
If you appear in the U.S. media with a Muslim name like mine, you live
suspended between hope and despair, compassion and anger, acceptance and
prejudice, inclusion and exclusion. You are blindly associated with the
actions of Muslims all over the world, and your religion itself appears
to be on trial.
Some letters sent by strangers in late April and early May illustrate
this unfortunate reality. I select four examples to make my point. The
letters represent two distinct responses to the debate around Islam. Their
sentiments were deeply felt and although I did not agree with everything
they wrote, I appreciated their frankness.
The first letter writer is a cleric at a church in Charlotte, N.C.:
"Thank you for your rational, liberal and humanistic article. ...
We sure need more scholars like you in the world. Please keep pushing
for that open-minded, peace-loving dialogue with your peers and the people
of the world."
The second writer is also a clergyman. He had seen my BBC TV series "Living
Islam," based on my book "Discovering Islam: Making Sense of
Muslim History and Society" and had written to me introducing himself
briefly. When I replied, he was moved to write:
"Thank you for responding. I have read the material you sent, and
have found a new sense of hope for America and our world. I have been
quite agitated by all that's been happening in recent years, and have
developed a pessimism that disturbs me. I assure you that I won't besiege
you with contacts, but let me take this opportunity to say that I admire
you and your work. Your erudition, piety and passionate commitment to
engage the (non-Muslim) world in dialogue are inspiring to me as a nonsecularist,
nonrelativist, `Byzantine' Christian. I often found myself unexpectedly
in tears while watching your films.
"I have just returned to America after living nine years with my
family in Romania, and learning to see the world through very different
eyes. I arrived there as a 40-year-old evangelical Protestant pastor,
and left as a Romanian Orthodox priest. You can probably imagine the upheavals
that meant. But I think my present task of learning what it means to live
meaningfully as a minority in my own homeland is the greatest challenge
of my life.
"I never expected to find inspiration in a Muslim scholar, nor did
I expect to find so much to admire in Islam. Forgive me. May God have
mercy on America, and may he teach us not only to respect, but to trust
one another in this ever so interdependent world. Thank you again."
Taking a different position altogether, another letter writer also reading
my column saw me as a lightning rod for my religion, Islam:
"Mr. Ahmed ... Your Muslim culture is no longer a mystery to this
country. And we fully understand why ALL Muslims hate us. This country
has a 200-plus-year history of being a safe haven for those who yearn
for freedom and the opportunity to better themselves. We have assimilated
countless cultures into our American culture to the betterment of our
country – our culture respects the right of people to practice the
religion or belief of their choice. However, we are NOT obsessed with
"America is faced with a new phenomena in that for the first time
immigrants from the Middle East of the Islamic persuasion come here, build
beautiful mosques, and preach hate right here in America. They raise funds
to send back to Muslim terrorist organizations to bring people here to
kill us! We have seen your `culture' fly into our buildings, your `culture'
has blown up our embassies, your `culture' preys on women and children,
and etc. Does your culture BUILD anything, or just blow things up? We
have examined the Muslim culture and find it without visible redeeming
The fourth letter was written apparently after the writer saw me on C-SPAN
with the distinguished Israeli writer Michael Oren on the Middle East
panel at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival in April. This letter fuses
Islamophobia and anti-Semitism:
"It matters little to me whether the pope, various imams, rabbis,
Jewish statesmen like Netanyahu and Sharon are burned alive or simply
peacefully exterminated. Rest assured that we know how to do it. A few
presidents may lack the integrity and courage to begin the process, but
this one doesn't.
"Since your pompous, dishonest book was written, we have totally
humiliated a couple of your dirty countries without even touching our
power to exterminate all who believe in Islam or the Arabs on Dearborn
Avenue in Michigan.
"You look and act like the Jews to whom you are related and your
suicidal program is intensified by your self-pity, arrogance and lack
of the ability to kill creatively. Therefore us secular types will have
to destroy you."
The first two letters hint at pain and tears, love and compassion, the
second two at anger and confrontation. Together they reflect the different
shades of the human condition.
Reading these letters, I was once again reminded of how complicated and
dangerously divided our world is, and how the debate around Islam is as
much about Muslims as it is about Jews and Christians; that we are all
suspended between hope and despair.
Copyright 2003 Religion News Service. All rights
Reproduced with permission.