DC Daughters and Sons Event: Journey into Islam
Each year, the Council invites members to bring their guests (high school age and older) to a special “Daughters and Sons” meeting on a pressing foreign policy issue of the day. These events feature topics and speakers with cross-generational appeal, and traditionally draw a large audience. This year’s event seeks to address the challenges and opportunities of cultural dialogue between the Muslim world and America.
Professor Ahmed and our four young speakers recently completed a ten week fact-finding trip through the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia, where they spoke with Muslims from all walks of life. As part of the Council’s continued examination of the relationship between religion and foreign policy, our speakers will discuss the role young people can play in building understanding between individuals and cultures a world apart. To read more about their experiences, click here.
Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
NANCY ROMAN: Okay, I think we're ready to go ahead and get started. If you could take your seats, please, I think we'd like to go ahead and get started.
Thank you so much for being here. To all the members of the council, but especially most of all to the sons and daughters, this is a special night for us because your parents are proud of you and it's a special opportunity for us just to engage you in the kinds of conversations that most of us have in our professional careers.
We're running a tad late, which, as you know, is not our custom. Oh! Our presider is here. So I was going to stand in and begin the introduction, but without further ado, Linda Robinson.
LINDA ROBINSON: Good evening. First I would like to apologize for violating the council's cardinal rule of punctuality, but the vagaries of Washington traffic got me today.
I'd like to first go over the ground rules. Please turn off your cell phones, BlackBerrys, other wireless devices. This is an on-the-record meeting.
And I would like to start by introducing Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, who is professor of Islamic Studies at American University, and he's also the former high commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain. He's also taught at Princeton, Harvard and Cambridge. He's won numerous teaching awards, and very interestingly last year, along with Dr. Judea Pearl, received the first-ever Purpose Prize.
Since 9/11 he's spoken -- traveled and spoken widely to foster the cause of understanding Islam and interfaith dialogue. His latest project is a book sponsored by American University, Brookings Institution and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life called "Journey into Islam."
He researched it with the help of five young Americans, and they all traveled through Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and Syria. Clearly, you are a man on a mission. And I think we have a most unusual program this evening.
I was a one-time exchange student and daughter of a Fulbright Scholar. My whole career has been in international affairs. And I think these early experiences that you have offered to these students are quite -- just pivotal in shaping young lives. I would like to welcome all of you, and we will get a chance to have a dialogue with you.
I would like to first start by asking you to -- Dr. Ahmed -- to describe your principal findings on this trip, this grand tour of the Islamic world. And I'd like to follow up with some questions about this great gulf --
AKBAR AHMED: Yes.
ROBINSON: -- between the Islamic world, the Western world and some specific points that we want to delve into.
But first, if you could, please, describe your overall thesis and tell us what you believe is the greatest misperception that Americans have about Islam.
AHMED: Well, it's complicated because there are two misperceptions; one of Islam in America, and one of America in the Muslim world. So you really are looking at a very complicated kind of perception of two civilizations looking at each other. It's a very difficult moment in history.
Here the impression of Islam, if you see the polls, if you see the data, the statistics, certainly if you see some of the television discussion about Islam, is that Islam is a violent religion; it is a religion of extremists, essentially terrorists; it's a threat; and that Western civilization is locked in a long-term battle with Islam to the end.
In the Muslim world, anti-Americanism is at a height. It was not so on the next day after 9/11 when the dreadful tragedy took place here in the United States in 2001, but it was the next day and the next day and the next day as Muslim opinion began to first be dazed, then stunned, then shocked then repulsed and angry as to the events that unfolded with Afghanistan, with Iraq, with the current situation in many parts of the Muslim world. You began to see an anti-Americanism building up.
So our findings were that there is a great challenge that we face in terms of trying to bring some understanding between these two civilizations.
And I may say, Linda, that I think this is such an important evening here today organized by the council and my friend Nancy, because fathers and mothers, extremely important, but more important, sons and daughters; because in a sense it's really this young American generation that has to find a way out into this 21st century, into this rather frightening and somewhat discouraging landscape that we saw.
But in the midst of all this we came back with a lot of hope because we met some marvelous people, warm people, very outgoing people reaching out to us, right across the spectrum. We met presidents and princes, students, professors; we went to mosques, madrassas.
And this marvelous team that you see here -- Frankie on my right, Hailey and Jonathan on my left -- they were with me everywhere. So they met President Musharraf. We went to the most orthodox madrassas in the Muslim world, where American diplomats could not conceive -- forget going there -- could not conceive going to. And yet they were there and they made a big impact. So for me they really became the best ambassadors of the United States.
And my advice to the young, and we've got lots of wonderful young people here, is to really to look to these youngsters. That will give you hope. Because sometimes when you see television and you get the news from abroad, it's so gloomy you just wonder what's going to happen and how you need to be moving ahead. Well, they have answers, and for me that was the most inspiring part of the trip.
ROBINSON: I'd like to, since you have a platform here, to give a short course in some of the key issues of Islam. I think that it would be very important to address one of the key issues you address in your book, which is, who speaks for Islam? And there are some key distinctions among the schools of Islam, but there's also this problem or this issue of what some people refer to as Islam being hijacked by certain either sects or spokespeople claiming to speak for Islam and, I think, perhaps adding to the confusion.
And when you refer to the Deoband school, there's the Wahabbist strain, and then there are others who insist that in the Koran the killing of innocents, women and children is strictly prohibited. And I think that the sort of welter of fatwas that you can see if you read the press, you know, people get kind of confused about who speaks for Islam and what, in terms of this nexus between Islam and terrorism, how are the central teachings being perverted or distorted?
AHMED: This is a key question. And for me, because I am as an anthropologist very interested in the idea, notion, practice, of leadership, this became a key question, who actually is representing Islam?
Now after asking the question, I did not buy or accept some of the discussion that we're hearing here in the United States, because some of the terms that are being used are so vague and so instantly wrong that you just wonder how any sensible conclusions can emerge from the discussion. So every couple of months you come across a new term -- Islamo-fascism or Jihadism or this-ism or that-ism, and that's not helping at all. What we found in the field were very clear established patterns, three models. They've been around for 300 years; they will continue, whatever terms and definitions are being applied to them.
And we need to very quickly understand what's happening in the Muslim world. And this is why, Linda, we need to understand, each one of us in this room, young and old, male and female, this is why: Number one, the United States of America now is joined at the hip with Islam. There is no escape. We have young American soldiers, troops, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. Pakistan is a key ally of the United States. Saudi Arabia is a key ally.
We have 7 million Muslims here in the United States. The global population of Islam is something like 1.4 billion; and by the middle of the century one-fourth of this planet will be Muslim, one nation out of 57 nuclear, and maybe in a decade, two decades, five, six, 10 Muslim nations that are nuclear.
Now we just cannot afford, we cannot afford to be ignorant of Islam. We cannot afford to say things and make the assessments and make the incorrect assumption that we see on television. So when you're assuming Muslims are Satan-worshippers, which I have heard myself on television said by very eminent and prominent people, I'm appalled, as someone trying to bring some understanding, as a professor on campus, because I say, my God, the problem really is huge because you have to really start at zero and explain Muslims are not Satan-worshippers; they're very much in the Abrahamic tradition. They believe in that same tradition; same prophet, same name -- Moses, Abraham, Jesus. Jesus is mentioned more often in the Koran than the prophet of Islam. There's an entire chapter on his mother, called Mary, in the Koran. How can these people be Satan-worshippers?
So it is really a great challenge for us here in the United States to begin to understand the Muslim world. It's a challenge for the Muslims because they too have some stereotypes and some great misunderstandings about the Americans.
ROBINSON: Let me ask you about the problem of sectarianism. And obviously, we see it so clearly in the case of Iraq, but there are also many people who fear that the Sunni-Shi'a cleavage and Sunni-on-Shi'a violence is something that could easily spread and become a problem at least in the Arab-Muslim world.
So could you address that and where you see that heading? Who is -- where is the theological issue that you hold responsible for that?
AHMED: The split within Islams came very early in the history of Islam, in the seventh century, but what you're seeing now is one expression of it. There've been good periods and bad periods between the Shi'a and Sunni. The fact of the matter is the Sunni constitute something like 90 percent, 85 to 90 percent of the Muslim world. So the civil war situation you're seeing in Iraq is very, very unusual. And the chances of the Shi'a suddenly dominating the Muslim world are virtually zero.
The problem is not the Shi'a-versus-the-Sunni divide. The problem is that today, as we discovered on our journey and as we asked these questions of ordinary Muslims -- Who is your role model? -- the question, "Who speaks for Islam?" -- I was very disappointed because very often the answers would be not the kinds of answers I wanted; for example, Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who believes in democracy, human rights and all the great virtues of Western democracy.
But the answers very often would be Osama bin Laden, Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah. And they would be given by Shi'a and Sunni simply because ordinary Muslims are now in despair, they're angry. And when people are angry, they're not responding in terms of ethnicity or sect; they're responding in anger. And in anger what they see is this particular figure is capable of standing up and challenging the West. So you're moving away from rationality, from tranquility, from sublimity, which is what religion is all about, and you're moving towards anger and emotion and violence.
ROBINSON: Stepping into the policy realm, then, what were some of your conclusions or observations with regard to how you start to reverse that if indeed it is both, you know, the anger, the radicalism. And obviously some of the roots of that include, according to many, the fact that U.S. policy has systematically supported Muslim dictators in many -- many of the countries you visited, as you note in your book. And so the roots of Arab discontent are perhaps manifold, but where do you see this headed?
AHMED: Linda, I see some hope here, a silver lining, and that is this: Americans by and large have been popular in the Muslim world, by and large. And you had 9/11, then you had the developments after 9/11, and the graph went down. But it's not very deep, the anti-Americanism. And I believe that's cause for hope. With some simple policy changes, some reaching out to the Muslim world, some symbolism, I believe that Muslim opinion can be affected. If that doesn't happen, it can get worse.
ROBINSON: One last question before we turn to your cohorts in this adventure. President Musharraf. You obviously have a relationship and an understanding of Pakistan. He is in a uniquely difficult position; under threat, has been subject to assassination attempts, under threat by the radical Islamic wing there. The country, however, has also become or remained a training ground and sanctuary for al Qaeda and a democracy test case coming up. So what do you foresee for Pakistan?
AHMED: Linda, again, Americans need to understand Pakistan. Why? Because Pakistan is the only nuclear power in the Muslim world. It has an established army, a command structure; it isn't a rabble of an army. It has a viable army in place. It is at the most sensitive geopolitical location in Asia. Just think of where it's located; south of it India, east of it China, north of it Central Asia, to the west the Arab world.
America cannot lose Pakistan. If America loses Pakistan now with what's happening in Iraq and the situation building up in Afghanistan, the Taliban resurgent along the borders, that eastern frontier will collapse in 24 hours if America loses Pakistan. That's how important Pakistan is.
Now having said this, this is where Musharraf is. And he said this to us; Frankie and Hailey were with me when we interviewed him. He said, "I'm being put under so much pressure. My American friends -- he said, "I'm an ally, I completely believe in this alliance. They tell me go into the tribal areas, send your troops, kill your people, produce Osama bin Laden." I just can't send troops into areas where no troops have been sent for centuries. It just doesn't work like this. And the reaction will be that I and my regime will face collapse." He was caught between this terrible position, the pressures from Washington, sometimes not understanding the predicament he's under, and the demands of his people.
And I believe now we've reached that tipping point in Pakistani politics. It's now almost crisis time. And Linda, I hope people in Washington -- I hope -- I know there's not been a very good record of this, but I hope they're planning for the future, thinking of the future and saying what next, because a crisis is hurtling towards us from Pakistan. And when that happens, forget Iraq; Iraq will seem like a picnic to you. Just think of 165 million people simmering now at this moment. I think anti-Americanism is at a height.
We were in a hotel in Karachi when we landed. In fact, Hailey had a picture of it which she wanted Bob Feyty (ph) to publish, but he was too kind for that, because she sat in front of a window that had been blown up days before we arrived -- because that hotel is next to the American Consulate, and American diplomats had been killed. This is a key ally of the United States.
So the feelings are bubbling and we really need to bring the temperature down and start creating friends now. It's not today, tomorrow; it's now. Otherwise we will have a major problem if we are to continue having a presence on the global stage.
ROBINSON: Okay. We'd like to turn now to start with Hailey. There's a moment in the book where you are in a van heading toward, I think it was the Deoband University or a madrassa in Pakistan, and you were very annoyed that the host and guide won't look at you directly. And obviously, having had many experiences in the Arab world particularly like this, I thought you might like to share some of your thoughts and feelings about that.
HAILEY WOLDT: Well, can everyone hear me? Okay.
Well, it was very interesting traveling as a woman. I was the only person to travel the whole trip with Dr. Ahmed and I was often the only woman present. And it happened when we were in this -- the most orthodox madrassa and Islamic center in South Asia in Delhi -- well, four hours outside of Delhi, that our host would not look at me directly.
And this happened quite often. I would reach out my hand to shake hands with someone, and often the men wouldn't shake my hand. And so there was a lot of cultural differences that I had to get used to. But I came to realize -- you know, at first I had this sort of American "Oh" thoughts; you know they oppress woman and this. But I came to realize that it's very important to assimilate and respect and understand their culture.
So when we were in this Islamic center, his name was Ajaz (ph) and he was very, very orthodox Muslim. And in fact he had written a book called "Jihad and Terrorism" about Israeli and American barbarism. So if I had pressed, you know, "Please look at me," or, you know, if I had breached those cultural boundaries it would have been taken very badly.
But instead, we respected it and understood it and we talked to him throughout the day. And he wouldn't talk to me directly, but throughout the week we became more comfortable talking. And we normally talked through another person; like he would address a question to Frankie that would be addressed to me, and then I would answer back to Frankie and Frankie would relay all of the answers and questions.
But by the end of the week, because we respected those cultural boundaries and because we did have a dialogue, he was really open to Americans after that. And he really understood Americans in a very different way. And he actually invited me to meet his wife and family some other time. You know, "Come back," and, you know, "I want you to meet my family." So it was a really incredible experience from, you know, simple things.
ROBINSON: I found that sometimes sticking my hand in my pocket keeps me from that automatic shaking hands greeting that we do.
I'd like to ask both of you to just offer an anecdote or something that struck you, before we open this up, where I hope there'll be a lot more questions about your specific adventures. But a couple of things that occur to me are either again reflections on either the anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism that came up and what you feel are paths to resolving that.
Also, very interestingly, because you all had a slice of the entire -- slices of the entire Islamic world, what differences maybe did you see and hear among people in Indonesia and Malaysia versus South Asia versus the three Middle Eastern countries?
Would you like to start off with some anecdote?
FRANKIE MARTIN: Well, yeah. I mean this for me was a tremendous opportunity to get to know the Muslim world, to travel to the Muslim world. I, like a lot of Americans, was very concerned about the direction that the country was going and the high level of tension that had erupted, especially after 9/11. And Dr. Ahmed -- I had taken some classes with Dr. Ahmed in the past, and so when he invited me to accompany him I was thrilled. And we did travel like a family. You know, many times, you know, Dr. Ahmed would be there and he would introduce me as his son and Hailey as his daughter. So automatically that put our relationship in a kind of context that in these cultures that we were going to people understood.
But what we found, and certainly what I found everywhere was the sense of frustration that Dr. Ahmed alluded to; that people are confused, they're frustrated, they feel humiliated, they feel dishonored and they want justice. When we were in Pakistan, in Karachi, a high school student that we were talking to, he kind of threw up his hands and just said, "There's so much injustice everywhere, I don't know what to do about it." And he didn't say anything about violence or anything, he was just so frustrated. But you could see how, and we could see how, you know, it's possible for that level of frustration to be converted into violence.
But people, you know -- that sense of frustration was the first thing that hit us. So we'd go into these mosques and we'd go into these madrassas and people would ask us questions. And they'd basically address them to us personally. You know, they'd say, because they really hadn't seen many Americans, they'd say, "Why did YOU invade Iraq? Why are YOU holding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay?"
And then, you know, initially I would try to kind of respond and say, "Oh, well, it's nuance, it's this," and then I realized what they want to do -- what they wanted me to do was listen to them because they think that Americans don't care. They think that Americans think that all Muslims are evil.
And we handed out questionnaires to people in these nine different countries, actually, and asked them what the biggest threat was facing the Muslim world. And in all nine countries the majority of people said the exact same thing, and that was, "American and Western perceptions of Islam is the biggest threat."
And I thought, "Oh, they're going to say Iraq, they're going to say Afghanistan." They're angry about a lot of those things, you know, and they're confused. They want to know what's going on. They want to know how they can solve these problems internally. They have problems, there's poverty, unemployment, all these things, but they were really concerned about the fact that they think that all Americans hate them.
So by us going there and by talking to people, I mean you could see things change. I mean we started getting questions like, "Are there mosques in America?" You know, "How do Americans think about this or this?" And across the board, despite all of the tension and all of the frustration, we were greeted so well, so hospitably even by the most conservative Muslims, which I didn't think would necessarily be the case.
So there is this unsatisfied demand in the Muslim world for dialogue with the West. People want greater understanding. There's just a huge gulf there and they don't know how to bridge it. And we haven't been able to do that yet, or actually we haven't be able to realize that it exists, which is also a problem. So that's the challenge, and I think it can be done.
AHMED: Linda, just let me put this in context. Visualize you're sitting in a mosque, the most orthodox mosque in the Muslim world. And you are in the prayer room. And here behind where I'm sitting is the mihrab, where Muslims -- the imam actually stands to deliver the prayer. It is so sacred, and as you know, it's men only, strictly segregated.
And in that mosque, on my left is Hailey and next to her Frankie. Now just imagine two Americans in that mosque in the prayer room and both of them very respectful. They're brilliant young students; these are my star students in the honors program. They were dressed appropriately, behaving appropriately, conveying respect, and in return, every one in that room showed respect to them. Although I thought perhaps there'd be some tension, there'd be some resentment, there wasn't.
There was a funny moment, and Hailey, do you want to tell the story, how the imam kept looking at you and saying "Amereeka!," and you thought he was saying, "Kill, kill." (Laughs.) Tell the story. I think you'll tell it well. (Laughs/laughter.)
WOLDT: Well, we got there and everyone spoke Urdu, it was in South Asia, so Frankie and I couldn't understand anything, and Professor Ahmed, I guess, just conveniently forgot to translate for us -- (laughter) -- what was happening. So Frankie and I are sitting in the prayer room, and the head cleric stands up to give his speech and then he starts saying, "Amereeka!" and da-da-da-da-da. And he starts getting louder and louder and louder and then pointing to us and saying, "Amereeka, Amereeka, Iraq!" And like he didn't say "Iraq" actually. (Laughs.) But, you know I was thinking all kinds of things at this point. I was very scared. And then, you know, he points to Professor Ahmed and says, "Da-da-da-da-da." And so anyway -- (laughter) -- it turns out that he's saying, "It's so great to have these wonderful Americans here! So great!" (Laughter.)
AHMED: "Welcome, welcome, welcome!" (Laughter.)
WOLDT: You know, the whole time we're just, you know, fearing for our lives, but -- (laughter) -- it's actually the -- if you open up the book, it's the first picture on the first page. So that's to give you a visual.
ROBINSON: What a relief. Jonathan, would you like to add a --
JONATHAN HAYDEN: Sure.
ROBINSON: -- a quick anecdote. And we will then open it up to your questions.
HAYDEN: I'd just follow up on what everybody else has been saying. But when we traveled we kind of hit -- I think each of us had different experiences. We kind of hit two realizations. The first was, there is a huge problem. There's a disconnect here between these two cultures. We need to understand each other.
The second one, we kind of found a sense of hope. By the end we all came back and all had this hopeful feeling. And I'll tell one story and kind of illustrate that. I went to a university in Jakarta -- I was in Indonesia -- and interviewed about 50 students. We had a conversation, and I gave them the questionnaire that we had where it asked about their role models, contemporary role models, and asked about historical role models and a lot of different questions.
And after talking to them, they were really warm, and I started to look at their responses. They were nice students. They looked like one of Dr. Ahmed's classes at American University. You know, they're nice kids. I started looking at their responses, and 75 percent, roughly, said Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Ahmadinejad, all these names, people who are hostile towards the West, talking, standing up for Islam. And they were looking for someone to stand up for them. And that kind of hit me, like if these kids are thinking like this, what else? You know, so we all had a moment like that where there was a huge problem.
Then I started to look further into their responses on the questionnaire, and after talking to them a little bit more I saw that their solutions -- we had a section where we asked about solutions -- their solutions were "dialogue, conversation, understanding, we want to be heard." They wanted to be heard. Like Frankie said, they want to air their grievances. They feel like they're under attack. They feel like their religion is under attack, and they wanted to be heard.
So you have this group who is right kind of on the edge, and we have to be reaching out. And the book talks a lot about that, especially Chapter 6. I suggest everyone buy it and read it. (Laughter.)
ROBINSON: Thank you.
I'd like to turn things over now to your questions; if you would please wait for the microphone and identify yourself. Please, we have to break for dinner here, so please keep your questions short. I hope especially anyone who may be contemplating their own adventure in the Islamic world may want to put in a question to these intrepid travelers.
Who would like to go first? Yes.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Jeanne Toungara, Howard University. My question has to do with the madrassas that you visited, because frequently we read in the press that what the students are learning in what we would call our K through 12 has a lot to do with building hatred against Americans and against the Western world. So I would like to know if you had an opportunity to look at some of that literature in the madrassas and if effectively that is what you found, and whether that would account for what one might perceive as the hostility against Americans.
AHMED: It partly does. Remember the history of the madrassa is an old history, it goes back centuries. The madrassa simply means a school. At its peak, the madrassas created the prototypes, a thousand years ago, from which Oxford and Cambridge emerged. Remember that the madrassas of Baghdad went to what was Muslim Spain, and the scholars a thousand years ago who came from England patterned Oxford and Cambridge, the first colleges, on these madrassas. The notion of the quadrangle, the tutorials, all this comes from the madrassas.
The madrassas you're referring to are more contemporary, last two decades, and they're linked with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the infusion of Saudi money, the involvement of the Pakistani intelligence, the involvement of the American intelligence to create an Islamic resistance to the Soviet. That madrassa system then became the gun fodder for the fighters against the Soviets. But once it was all over, the Americans packed up and left, came back home in the 1990s and left Afghanistan in complete ruins. From that ruin emerged the Taliban and the hatred that you're seeing now. And that feeds into the thinking not only of the madrassas, but across the board.
So the madrassas is a very small part of the jigsaw puzzle. We asked President Musharraf, we said, "What about the madrassas?" Such an important question. And he said the same thing. He said, "Look, the Americans want me to simply close the madrassa because they don't understand what the madrassa is. They just say madrassa, terrorist, blowing up people. If I close the madrassa, which is the only free system which educates young Muslims, I'll have millions of young boys out on the streets, and 90 percent of them will come out there with mischief on their minds because they have nothing to do. And they have resentment. They have anger and the hatred."
So what he said was that he's trying to reform these madrassas; have better schools, better teachers, better teachers' training programs. And that is a big challenge. It's a very big challenge because here the perception really is simply black and white. They don't understand what a madrassa is.
I would very strongly advocate a lot of the aid we're giving these countries like Pakistan, a lot of that aid should go to reform the educational system. And that will change how people think and look at us here in America.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Lola Grace. In your travels did you find any comments on the U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, in Iraq and in Palestine-Israel, as a source of discontentment towards Americans?
AHMED: Lola, we did. And I'd like the team to comment, because obviously we were all involved in this exercise of talking to ordinary people. We found high anti-Americanism. We found high anti-Semitism. There's a lot of very negative feelings floating around.
People are watching "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and presuming that's correct. We pointed out that this is just fiction created by the czar's secret service. So we have many recommendations which we have in the book as a result of our travels there, what we believe Americans really need to be doing, what Muslim leaders need to be doing if they can overcome this crisis, or this will become a global confrontation between two civilizations.
Maybe Hailey, you want to comment on this question, and Jonathan.
WOLDT: Well, we did definitely hear a lot about Israel-Palestine and Iraq, Afghanistan, but it was interesting because the places, the regions that we went to had different things that they focused on. There's a lot going on in the Muslim world. There's 57 countries, 1.4 billion people, and there's a lot of conflicts in those different regions.
We went to the Arab world, South Asia and Southeast Asia. And in the Arab world there was a lot of talk about Israel, Palestine and Iraq. And the emotions were very raw because it's next door. People from Iraq are coming into their homes or their neighborhoods and they're really upset about it.
We were in Amman and some people from the Pakistani Embassy took us out one night. And we saw, you know, all of the Palestinian homes there, and, you know, they were crowding Amman. And so it's a very different thing for us to see on the news, but you know there it's their real life.
And then when we went to South Asia it was Kashmir and Chechnya and Afghanistan. And, you know, they're very upset about different reasons. But at the same time, it's all part of a global feeling of frustration and a global feeling of being under siege.
And there's the idea that -- Professor Ahmed talks about this and it's in the book, but that the Islamic community is called the Uma, and it's like the body of Islam. And if one finger hurts on it, the whole body is affected. And so that's how people see the Islamic world, and that's probably why it's so important to so many people, not just the people that live next door to Iraq.
HAYDEN: And also -- yeah, that's totally correct. And it's also important to us to keep -- it should be important to keep the whole world in perspective because it is a global issue. I mean we're very concerned about Iraq, as we should be, and people there in the Muslim world are concerned about Iraq everywhere. And like I said, they'd ask us all the time, "What happened? What are you doing in Iraq? Why have you invaded Iraq?"
But it's also this whole -- it's everything. It's Iraq and Afghanistan, and these students are sitting there trying to figure out what's going on in the world, trying to figure out what's going on in their societies and the governments, and they're looking and they're watching the news, and the media plays this up all over the Muslim world.
And that's another issue of perception. They said throughout, you know, "We get your media, but you don't get our media. So we see how you're depicting Muslims." And it all feeds into this sense of Islam being under attack wherever it is.
But yet, that being said, as we found, and I was a little bit surprised at this but it's true, that they really do want -- people do want to -- they know there's a problem and they do want solutions. They want to reach out. So that's our challenge.
AHMED: And Lola, more specifically in terms of your question, yes, the Palestinian issue is uppermost in the minds of many Muslims right across the Muslim world, not only because of what they see on the television screens, the suffering of the Palestinian people and the sense of hopelessness; so many killed today, so many, then strike, then more killed, and the cycle of violence on both sides. But also the symbolism of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem, because that goes back to early Islam and that has a resonance throughout the Muslim world. So it's more than just a regional problem. And that's why we really pray that this problem is resolved as soon as possible, that there is some harmony and peace in that region.
But it is there, and then when you look at it from the Muslim world you'll see the Palestinian issue, you see the Kashmiris, you see the Chechens, the Bosnians, you see the complaints about Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, and this just piles up and Muslims begin to feel that this is a war on Islam.
And then attacks on the prophet, attacks on Islam itself by prominent people are all flashed in the Muslim world. Everything being discussed here on television -- we're in the age of globalization -- is being seen there and it's just feeding into the sense of anger. And really the temperature has to be brought down. That should be our number one concern.
QUESTIONER: Macani Toungara, Harvard University. My question is, what role does democracy have to play at this stage in the game? One of the, I think, false excuses given for invading Iraq was, quote-unquote, "democracy promotion." But the U.S. involvement in the Middle East has often been to suppress democracy movements because they threaten the people in power who have supported U.S. policies and U.S. control of oil resources in that region.
So are students and the people you've spoken to frustrated about the Western role in suppressing democracy? And what becomes the way to help individuals to move towards a more democratic system in Muslim countries in general; how to empower those individuals to reach that stage?
AHMED: Well, it's a very important question because Islam is extremely compatible with democracy, with the idea of democracy. The reality is very different. Now, Jonathan met some of the leading figures who represent democracy and human rights and civil liberties. Jonathan, tell them what your impressions were talking to Dr. Anwar, for example, in Jakarta.
HAYDEN: This was in Jakarta also, and talking to -- this is just an example of the people who are promoting democracy, how they're struggling. People who are promoting democracy, they have to promote an understanding of pluralism, cooperation with the West. In promoting that, that's what they're seen to be promoting as well. So they're promoting that, they're being hit from the conservative side in issuing fatwas. In Jakarta these people that we talked to are being issued fatwas from the conservative side, the Muslim clerics, and so they're under pressure from that side.
They're not getting any support from the West. And the person that we met with was just really struggling and just felt like he was hung out there to dry. He's trying to promote democracy, pluralism, all of these things that we should be supporting, and we're not giving him any support. He's sitting there just in limbo with nothing to do.
And every time we make a mistake, an Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, he is completely marginalized. Nobody's going to follow that type of leader when they feel like they're under attack. There're going to feel like they're going to follow the leaders who are standing up for Islam. That's why you see the people starting to look toward the stronger leaders, the political groups inspired by the Wahhabis or the Osama bin Ladens.
ROBINSON: I'd like to just follow up and ask, from the grassroots, the kind of young people and man-in-the-street interviews you did, do you get a sense of a yearning for democracy? I mean, is it a strong sentiment out there? Are there other issues that are more important to them?
WOLDT: No, I definitely think that there is. You know, we had these questionnaires and it was mostly geared toward younger students there, so, you know, it was about our age. And often they would say, you know, it's so silly that the Americans are saying we hate freedom. You know, that's what we want most. And they were often saying that they were very frustrated that their own governments -- you know, they're under siege every day from their own dictators.
Often we would ask them -- we would have to ask them who their role models were so that we wouldn't have to ask them directly, "Do you admire your president?" or -- you know, we had to ask indirect questions and gain insight from that because often free speech isn't admitted in those countries.
But often so many people that we talked to in Jordan, Pakistan, everywhere, they were saying that they really admire America for it's freedom, for freedom of speech, for its -- when we were in Aligarh, everyone said that, you know, "I read `The World Is Flat,' and I want so much to be given a job for merit. Not because I'm related to this person or because I have, you know, this title, but because of my merit."
And I think a lot of people are very frustrated that they don't have that, and because of the media they see it every day and they see it's possible, but they don't have it. And I think that only adds to the frustration rather than, you know, making it easier for them.
MARTIN: People want the U.S. to honor its ideals. We heard this everywhere. You know, people would say yes, we -- you know, we love democracy in the ideal and freedom and all this, and for a lot of people the U.S. represented that. And now people are saying more and more, we don't think it represents that anymore. You know, we see democracy -- people were talking about Hamas a lot and saying, "Oh, well, Hamas won the election and then the U.S. cut them off. You know, how is that democracy?"
But this real love of the United States was really surprising to me too. I mean, we had -- we interviewed in Jordan the head of the -- it was a Parliament member, right, of the Islamic Action Front, which is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood! And he said, "I love the United States." He didn't say, "I like the U.S." He said, "I love the U.S. but I can't understand what they're doing; blah, blah, blah." So there is that issue. So I think if we do return to those ideals, in the minds of Muslims we're going to have a much easier time.
AHMED: And Linda, could we request some of the sons and daughters to ask questions?
ROBINSON: Yes. I just did recognize this gentleman here, and we'll go back to the back after this.
AHMED: Is he a son or a daughter? (Laughs.)
ROBINSON: (Laughs.) I'm sure he's someone's son. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: I am a son. (Laughter.) I'm Robert Herzstein. Your hopeful and somewhat optimistic perspective leaves me puzzled because I -- along with some others I had the pleasure a couple of weeks ago of hearing Milton Viorst in this room talk about his recent book. And I can't pretend to summarize it, but I left that room with one strong phrase in my mind which was, "Seven centuries of historic memory are going to be very hard to get over." Seven centuries of conflict and bad events.
I wonder -- I know he's here, and I don't want to speak for him, but I wonder if I -- if there's any way to clarify this difference. Perhaps he was just stressing the Arab-Muslim section; perhaps there's a difference. In any event --
AHMED: You yourself have pointed out the flaw in that argument. And I hear this all the time. Please remember the Muslim world is not the Arab world. Eighteen percent of the Muslim world is Arab. Yes, Arab memory is colored by the memory of the Crusades, but you go further east, you go to South Asia and go to Indonesia, and the Crusades means nothing. It's a totally different historical experience. Yes, the era of colonization has an impact, but there are so many good memories as there are bad memories.
So I don't buy this business of thousand years of war and we'll continue another thousand years. You know, this is really a contemporary history. I don't think it works like this at all. If you just go back a couple of decades, just go back and ask your scholars who are commenting on Islam, ask them what the Muslim world was looking to. Who were their models?
All the Muslim newly independent countries from Morocco to Turkey to Pakistan were looking to the West. They were looking to London and they were looking to Washington. And these were nationalist movements that had brought independence to their nations. So what happened to that theory? How come they had transcended the seven centuries or the thousand years of bad history?
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the largest Muslim nation on Earth, Pakistan, in 1947, his entire model was Westminster. Don't you think he read history? Or are we now to tell him that, "By the way you've forgotten this thousand years?"
So we really have to look at the Muslim world on its own terms. The problem here is -- and we have a full chapter discussing this in the book -- the problem is genuine because there is an attempt to impose a frame, a theoretical frame, an ideological frame, on what is happening, and that's creating too many problems. If your assumptions are wrong, your conclusions are going to be wrong. And that's what you're seeing. So you're just not understanding the problem.
Muslims are not saying we have a bad thousand years of history. They're saying I don't want my home to be blown up, I don't want my daughter to be kidnapped and raped. And they're not bothered whether it's Americans doing it or the Shi'a or the Sunni or anyone. They want security like you. That's how they want to live.
And what they're finding today in the Muslim world is that they're not being able to live normal, decent, ordinary, stable lives. Their lives are being disrupted right across the board. Do you know that 80 percent of the world's refugees are Muslim? Eighty percent. Now just think of these refugee camps in the Middle East and Central Asia and South Asia; you have a time bomb, a ticking time bomb, of a young generation disrupted, hating someone or the other for what is happening to their lives and ready to explode.
Now, I don't think they're thinking and saying, "Well, it was the Crusades, that's why I'm sitting here." They are abusing or attacking their own leaders or their own political leaders. They may be attacking their own government for not giving them rations or food or shelter or information about their families. There is that resentment. So we need to look at what's happening on a very practical -- in a practical way and on the terms of the problem.
I'm an anthropologist. Our method is very simple. You go there and you look at the society and you analyze it on its terms. When I go there and impose something on them, I'm not going to understand that tribal or community group or the social group. That's what we are taught in anthropology. I think we need more anthropologists looking at the Muslim world. (Laughter.)
ROBINSON: Who else would like to jump in here? Go ahead.
QUESTIONER: Alex Leipziger. Hi. I had a question about Pakistan. I think that it could be argued that in order to make headway in Afghanistan and just in general, a crucial step is the amelioration of the circumstances, situation in western Pakistan, in the tribal areas. So I completely agree that the U.S. needs to have a better understanding of the constraints on President Musharraf and he really is, as you said, stuck between a rock and a hard place. But at the same time, what steps would you say the U.S. should take and President Musharraf should take in order to solve this crucial problem?
AHMED: A very good question because the Pakistani Tribal Areas -- and that really constitutes half the country, it's not just a tiny little group somewhere in some mountain cave. You're talking of two of the key provinces, Baluchistan, bordering Iran and Afghanistan, and the Frontier Province, bordering Afghanistan.
Already we've lost the Tribal Areas. The Taliban are now resurgent in the Tribal Areas for the first time in history. What President Musharraf needed to have done was to show much, much, much more adroitness, much more skill at handling the tribal elders and chiefs and consuls, instead of which he sent in the Army. Now, it may have been under pressure from you know who. The Army went in there, bang, boom, missiles blowing up. They came back with a bloody nose. They lost several hundred men. Again pressure from guess who. I believe Vice President Cheney was there recently. Once again the Army went in. Again bloody nose, came out, and the result today is a state of uncertainty. It's an unresolved problem.
Instead of which, if the billions of dollars that are being given were channeled into schools, roads, health schemes; ordinary tribal people would have said, "We are seeing the benefits of our friends the Americans." That's what they'd have to say. No one is convinced, my friend, if you blow their homes up, that they love you. You can't win hearts and minds by blowing up people's homes, which is what's happening.
Remember all these gunships and helicopters and tanks, they're all made in the United States, away. People know that. We're living in the age of globalization. Fifty percent -- fifty percent -- of the aid going to Pakistan is going into defense services, which is helicopter gunships and tanks. That's being used in Baluchistan, in the Tribal Areas. And that could have happened if there had been an attempt by President Musharraf. I think that that was a policy that he needed to implement in a very different way. And he's paying for it now.
Baluchistan is very, very restive, simmering; Tribal Areas simmering. And if there's a crisis with Iran -- pull out the map and have a good look at the map, and I hope people in Washington are looking at maps these days. Look at the map. If there's a crisis, Baluchistan is adjacent to Iran and the tribes are on both sides. And if you lose Baluchistan, which you've lost right now, it's up in arms, you're going to have no access from the eastern frontier. On the western frontier you have Iraq and you have a very difficult situation.
ROBINSON: Yes, would you like to ask a question?
QUESTIONER: My name is Brianna Pegado. I go to the Maret School here in D.C. You keep speaking about how our generation is the future, and I believe that. And you talk of dialogue. But with governments that restrict their curriculum and freedom of speech, how do you propose to open up this dialogue with students that are my age to understand and to grow and to learn from each other if the government restricts any type of learning or education?
AHMED: That's such a good question that I'll ask someone your generation to answer. (Laughter.)
WOLDT: Well, that is a really big problem, but the thing is, what we found is that it can be solved. You know, when I was in September 11th, you know, all of us were doing something and at that very moment we all remember what we were doing and how shocked and hurt and confused and angry we were. And three years later I took a class with Professor Ahmed called "The Clash or Dialogue of Civilizations?" And at the end of that class title is a question mark. Is it clash or dialogue? And when I started taking the class, Frankie was also in the class, when I started taking it I realized that there are alternatives.
And what many people in the Muslim world are seeing right now is that there are no alternatives. You're right, there's no free speech, they are under a lot of pressure, their societies are very closed and they don't see any dialogue between the West and the Muslim world. I mean, when you turn on the TV how many Muslim scholars do you see? You know, there's Professor Ahmed and -- (laughs) -- you know, a few others but not many. And so they don't see a dialogue going on in the world media and within their own societies they don't see it. But with globalization there's a lot of exchange of ideas, exchange of people.
And I think that if we can use technology and if we can use it very peacefully, then there are chances for dialogue and contact just student to student, person to person. So many people that I go to school with are studying in Egypt, studying in, you know, India, Malaysia. So many people. And if we can encourage that, if we can use technology to aid in dialogue, I think that there is so much hope and so much possibility. And, you know, no government is powerful enough to stop the influence of technology.
HAYDEN: And you're right. I mean these are -- there are tough situations out there. There are major security issues. It's not like everyone can just go pick up and go to the Muslim world with their professor. (Laughter.) It's true. But there are programs out there. There are study-abroad things that you can do in college and these kind of things. But it's not just travel. That's part of it, but it's building understanding.
And like I said, in nine different countries we all looked at the questionnaires and talked to people and this issue of perception kept coming up again and again that the number one threat people had or thought was facing the Muslim world was Western and American perceptions of Islam. So that they know there's a gap there.
So what we can do here and what people in high school and college can start doing is what a lot of people have started to do, is to learn Arabic, to try and learn about the culture. After 9/11 we did it in reverse. We started with 9/11 and hijackings and suicide bombings and all of that stuff and then tried to relate that to Islam. What we really should do is to start learning about Islam on its own terms, like Dr. Ahmed was saying. And if you start doing that, learn about it, read about it, take some classes, read some books, there's stuff out there, and then try to relate that and say, okay, well, now what's going on in the world? What's happening? So I think we can do that. That's definitely possible.
AHMED: And here I must interject to point out to all of you the heroic nature of these youngsters, because they defied their families, their communities, and went out on this trip. I mean, think of Hailey in Texas, deep from the heart of Texas. (Laughter.) And she told her parents, "I'm off to the Muslim world." She's never been to the Muslim world. And then going off to the Muslim world with a Muslim professor, and they thought this is the last we're going to see of our darling daughter. (Laughter.) And they said no. She defied them and came on this.
Frankie, the same. Here, of course, being in Africa, East Africa, he had some idea, but never been to the Muslim world. Jonathan, the young lad from Alabama, first time to the Muslim world. Again, they took terms off, academic terms, paid for the trip themselves. So this is young America. This is what gives all of us hope.
When you say, my friend, how do you have hope, and your colleague Milton had less hope, I get hope from these youngsters. And there are youngsters like this in the Muslim world, their counterparts. All we need to do is listen to them, heed them and move forward.
ROBINSON: Well, I think that's -- yes, we'll take one last quick question here. I've license to go just a bit over, but let's wrap it up.
AHMED: As long as it's an optimistic one. (Laughter.) We want to end on --
ROBINSON: As long as it's a quick one.
AHMED: We want to end on a good note.
QUESTIONER: Sam Keeney. It seems to be one of the conflicts that we're having here is not just a conflict of societies or civilizations. It seems to me that much of our society is based on secularism, our institutions of learning and so many other things, whereas if you mention this kind of thing in the Muslim world, that you're a secularist and that you have some disagreements, that you're not going to be listened to. And it seems to me that even in our own culture, the arguments between fundamentalists and secularists, I mean it's not that easy to get rid of here. Do we think we can really get rid of it there?
AHMED: Sam, my friend, don't simplify things. It is your president, when asked what is his favorite book, said "The Bible." It is hundreds of thousands of Turks marching right now in Istanbul and Ankara against religious parties being in power.
So let's not simplify it. Societies have different ways of interpreting their own traditions. To the world, the United States seems very, very religious. Everything. You may say we are secular; to the world it is a very religious society. "In God We Trust" on your dollar bill. All the references to the Bible, to the Christian nation, to the Christian ethos. The great American voices, and they're heard all over the world, whether it's Falwell, whether it's Franklin, whether it's Jerry Vines, they are talking very much in a religious context.
QUESTIONER: But the jihadists say that they don't like us because we are secular. So if you go directly to the problem, it's hard to disagree --
AHMED: Sam, my friend, don't -- you see, that's why I've tried -- read my Chapter 4, because the notion of these concepts you talk about -- the jihadists, for example, I don't know these -- I'm a Muslim. My family has been Muslim for centuries. So suddenly you're defining me. So you are saying read the jihadists or Islamo-fascisms. I don't understand these concepts. Perhaps you do and therefore you come to your own conclusions.
If I were to be asked, I would look at it very differently, and I would not then use these terms to define me. One of the challenges that we all felt was our need to really begin to understand what's going on and not see things in this -- quite this "we are secular they're not secular, they hate our freedoms, they hate our McDonald's and Coca-Cola and therefore they want to blow us up."
Don't simplify. The Muslim world, as has been pointed out, is very complicated, stretching across the globe, really the globe. You talk of the United States as if there is no Muslim presence here. Who's Muhammad Ali? Who's Malcolm X? The African-American community is as Muslim as you are, Sam. They've been here for centuries. And that is 30 percent of the Muslim population in the United States of America.
Rumi is the number one poet in the United States of America, according to the sales. Who is Rumi?
QUESTIONER: He's a Sufi poet.
AHMED: He's a Sufi poet. He's very much a Muslim.
QUESTIONER: Sufi -- (off mike).
AHMED: Sam. Sam, Sam, Sam.
ROBINSON: I'm going to have to say --
AHMED: Sam -- no, let me complete this, Linda. Sufi -- Rumi has been -- Sam has said he's Sufi. He's absolutely right. Sam, please read his poetry. It's all inspired by the Koran and the prophet. Now, you could say he's Sufi, he's fundamentalist. See, these are your definitions. To him he's just an ordinary human being trying to find the Divine.
ROBINSON: Ambassador and the three of you, I'd like to thank you. I think this has been a great start at the dialogue and -- (applause) -- and a challenge for us all to take Islam 101.
AHMED: Thank you so much, Linda. Thank you.
ROBINSON: Thank you so much. It was great.
AHMED: Thank you.
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