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Students tour Muslim world

A group of Americans sought dialogue in nine countries, hoping to improve Western-Islamic relations.

(Page 3 of 3)

"Journey into Islam" describes interactions in several countries that were meaningful to both sides. The most intense and consequential, however, was a visit to Deoband University in India, the most orthodox Islamic school in South Asia. (Deoband is a strict movement promoting assertive action to defend Islamic identity.)

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Their guide for the visit, Aijaz Qasmi – a chief Deoband ideologue and webmaster for a site that reaches millions in the region – was a man "obsessed with American and Israeli 'barbarism,'" Ahmed says. Mr. Qasmi had authored "Jihad and Terrorism," a book asserting that killing civilians can be justified when they belong to democracies and fail to change policies that oppress Muslims.

The group spoke at length with Qasmi and students at the isolated but technologically up-to-date university.

As the author of many books and documentaries on the Muslim world, as well as a former Pakistani ambassador to Britain, Ahmed himself has been vilified by Islamic radicals over the years. But after their Deoband visit, Qasmi traveled for a week with them, watching him speak to major Muslim audiences in India and hold other discussion sessions.

Qasmi later e-mailed Ahmed, expressing appreciation for what the professor said and seeking permission to translate into Urdu one of Ahmed's recent books that emphasizes the value of Western-Muslim dialogue. (Ahmed's book is dedicated to a prominent Jewish scholar.)

Dialogue only hope for the future?

"We were the first Americans he ever met, and now his translation of Dr. Ahmed's book will go to millions in the madrassah system in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan," Woldt says. "This is an example of dialogue making a difference."

Ahmed has been a prominent voice promoting interfaith dialogue for years, beginning in Britain. Since moving to the US in 2001 (before 9/11), his wide-ranging interfaith activities have included traveling the US for public conversations with his Jewish friend Judea Pearl, the father of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl.

For Ahmed, increased dialogue offers the only hope for the future of Western-Islamic relations. "I wouldn't waste time talking to Osama bin Laden," he says. "But someone who knows little about America and may never have traveled abroad and is open to discussion, I'm prepared to spend time and money to talk with that person. In the end, I may convert someone important to a different way of thinking."

But America hasn't been doing any real talking to people US leaders need to talk with, he adds. By avoiding such dialogue, it is not only ignoring voices that speak for large sections of Muslim society but also enhancing the prestige of some leaders at the expense of others and marginalizing those most interested in positive ties. In "Journey," Ahmed proposes how the US should interact with all three religious groupings in the Muslim world.

"America is the one nation that can change the course of the planet, and so it has a leadership responsibility," he emphasizes. The trip raised the hopes of everyone involved, but only if those in the United States reassess the situation and follow their own ideals in reaching out to Muslims.

After all, according to current estimates, Ahmed says, 25 percent of the world's population will live in Muslim-majority countries by 2050.