When Islamic clerics meet 'The Great Satan' face to face

As the principal of an Islamic seminary in New Delhi, Maulvi Mohammad Mouzzam Ahmed knows there is no such thing as a free lunch.

So when he was offered an all-expenses-paid trip to the United States a few months ago, to see how religious schools operate there, he was curious, and a little skeptical. What, he wondered, would the world's greatest superpower want with a nice moderate Muslim like him?

The maulvi was not alone. He was just one of a half-dozen Indian Muslim clerics invited to the United States in September as part of the US State Department's International Visitors program, a 60-year-old institution that has brought nearly 100,000 emerging world leaders an exposure to US culture, society, and institutions.

Every year, US embassy officials choose a theme. Last year's tour group of Islamic clerics from India - the country with the world's third-largest Muslim population - focused on American religious education, and was called "the madrassah program." Smart alecks here had another name for it: "Meet the Great Satan."

Maulvi Mouzzam, a pious middle-aged man with a disarming smile, is still not entirely sure what it was all about. But he did have a good time, he says. "Americans only work on a profit and loss basis, and I'm not sure what sort of benefit they have gotten from my visit," he says, now back at his job handling admissions at the madrassah he runs at Fatehpuri Mosque in Old Delhi. "I did enjoy the American people, though. They were not as virulently anti-Muslim as their government."

Given the prevalent anti-American sentiment found in South Asia these days, such suspicion is perhaps not surprising. But US diplomats in New Delhi say they have no hidden agenda. The main point, they say, is good old fashioned interaction: to bring different people from all over the world to see the United States for themselves, and determine whether the impressions they have or the propaganda they hear matches their own experiences.

Whether such programs actually work, of course, is another question. Some Indian academics see such programs as just another product of American naiveté. "I find American foreign policy incredibly naive at times," says Dipankar Gupta, an anthropologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Travel broadens the mind, but it depends on what kind of experience you have. It can actually backfire, and you can become more rigid to change."

Among Americans "there's this belief that if we show people the truth, then rationality will prevail," says Mr. Gupta. "But that's not the point. On issues such as moral values, people aren't very rational. It's what they do, it's what they've always done, and they don't change."

By most accounts, the madrassah educators group was rather cantankerous. Traveling from Washington, D.C. and Charlotte, Va., to Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles, these various mullahs, imams, and maulanas received an in-depth look at how American Jewish, Christian, and Islamic private schools operate, and how they incorporate secular subjects like math, science, and literature into a morally based educational framework.

Some, including Maulvi Mouzzam, were sharply critical of what they saw of the US, particularly regarding school discipline.

Today, the tour is still a bit of a blur for Mouzzam, who says the trip was so packed with meetings that he had little time for sight-seeing. But he recalls the shock he felt one day at a religious school, where an 8th grade student at the front of the class sat in her chair with her feet propped up on the top of her desk.

"The respect for teachers was missing," says Mouzzam. "I told them the religious education they are giving is insufficient, the children are learning their religion but they aren't learning what is right and what is wrong."

Unfortunately, he says, nobody seemed to listen, neither the American teachers nor the American diplomats back in Washington. "The only time they will actually take anything from us is when they are ready," says Mouzzam with a sigh. "Right now, they are in a position when they think they are Superman and they don't need anything from anybody."

Even so, America was a revelation for Mouzzam. "Everybody follows the rules. Everybody treats you with respect, not as some member of the multitudes to be pushed aside. The roads were all clean." But the food was not a high point.

"Ooph," says Mouzzam, remembering how thin and sickly he looked when he returned. He couldn't eat the meat because it wasn't halal, or Islamically clean. He didn't like the vegetables because they didn't taste as good as the ones back home. He couldn't eat sweets because he's diabetic. And he couldn't drink milk products because they were too rich, and he has a heart condition.

"When I came back, my friends all said I looked like I had just come from some backward faraway Indian village," he laughs.

But most important, Mouzzam says he was surprised that Americans were so friendly to a bearded Muslim cleric wearing traditional kurta pajamas. "I used to think that all Americans were against Islam, but they weren't," he says. But while Americans were friendly, by and large, he feels that Americans still need a better understanding about Islam, and about why certain people turn to violence or terrorism to solve their problems.

"You have to go to the source, to the roots of terrorism," says Mouzzam. "You say you are against people picking up arms, and yet you allow Ariel Sharon to pick up arms and kill the Palestinian people. When you are attacked during 9/11 you retaliated against the terrorists." But when India's parliament was attacked by terrorists on Dec. 13, 2001, "we were told not to react. It is not a level playing field."

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