Students tour Muslim world

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

What do ordinary people in the Muslim world think about relations with the West? Where do they stand in the struggle within Islam? Who are the role models for young Muslims? How are their religious identities being shaped, and by whom?

With the future of the United States and the Muslim world linked more closely (and painfully) than ever, a professor and four young Americans headed off in 2006 to find answers to those questions in the mosques, madrassahs (religious schools), cafes, and universities of nine Muslim nations.

Talking with students, sheikhs, government leaders, and democratic and Islamic activists, the group encountered widespread anger and frustration, but also an eagerness to talk, even among those whom many Americans would call extremists. One remark­able outcome of the trip: a turnaround in the attitude of an Islamic ideologue whose works are influential across South Asia.

"Stereotypes I had – that Mus­lims were ignorant of what was going on in the world, that they hated Americans – were very much challenged," says Texan Hailey Woldt, a junior at Georgetown University in Washington. "I was amazed at how much they read. They listen to CNN and BBC and were very informed about American politics. And I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and open-mindedness."

Frankie Martin, a graduate of American University from Maryland, agrees. "Even the most conservative Muslims welcomed us. I thought they would not be as receptive," he says.

The students (one Muslim and three non-Muslims) were part of an "anthropological excursion" led by Prof. Akbar Ahmed, an internationally renowned Islamic scholar and anthropologist who teaches at American University in Washington, D.C.

"Journey into Islam," Professor Ahmed's penetrating analysis of the lessons learned from the trip and the challenges they pose for the US, will be published in June by Brookings Institution Press. Going beyond the usual discussion of "moderates vs. radicals," his book explores the history and changing fortunes of three major religious groupings vying for influence within Islam: the modernizers, the mystics (who support getting along with other faiths), and the orthodox traditionalists (who are gaining influence through the Islamic resurgence).

"It's vital for Americans to understand the nuances and complexities of Muslim society in order to formulate a foreign policy that is effective," Ahmed says.

Anti-Americanism has spread in the Muslim world even as American Muslims see signs of growing "Islamophobia" in the US. The young people who signed on for the trip were personally committed to finding ways to cut through such depressing news and improve understanding.

Mr. Martin's family was living in Kenya when the US Embassy there was bombed in 1998, spurring his need "to figure out what was going on." Hadia Mubarak, a Muslim American of Syrian-Jordanian background, hoped "to bridge the two worlds" that she feels a part of. Ms. Woldt felt it was "the duty of my generation to understand and do something about [the situation]."

What most surprised the students was the strong consensus they found in every country visited – from Turkey to Indonesia – on what people saw as "the No. 1 problem facing the Muslim world." In every case, the answer was "Western misperceptions of Islam."

"They think Americans just don't care [about understanding Islam] and think all Muslims are evil or terrorists," Martin says. "They say, 'We get your media and see how you view Islam, but you don't get our media.' "

Wherever the group traveled, adds Jonathan Hayden, a University of Alabama graduate and assistant to Ahmed, "Fox News was on, and you'd see Ann Coulter calling people 'ragheads' over and over, or Glenn Beck on CNN."

The sense that they are not understood – or being deliberately misrepresented and maligned in Western media – intensifies frustrations Muslims already feel over the failings of their own governments and the impact of Western-style globalization.

Many Muslims feel threatened

"Many see a corrosion of their own society and feel very threatened," Woldt says. For example, young women they met in Damascus were happy that Syria had recently gotten cellphone service and Internet access. But they also were upset about children now glued to video games and young men sending pornographic images via cellphones.

The widespread sense that Islam is under siege and being wrongly defined by Westerners also showed up in questionnaires the group gave to youths in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Qatar, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. (Egypt was the ninth country visited.)

Asked to identify their current role models, young people in the four Arab countries overwhelmingly chose Amr Khaled, a popular Egyptian TV preacher who presents a more modern but "proper image" of Islam. (An appendix in "Journey into Islam" elaborates on the historical and contemporary role models young people identified in each country.)

While role models varied by region, youths in most countries often chose conservative leaders who, they said, "stand up for Islam" against the West – such as Islamic scholar Yusuf Qaradawi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr. Hayden recalls a class of 50 young women in Indonesia, in which 65 percent listed names like Osama bin Laden, Ayatollah Khomenei, and Mr. Ahmadinejad among their heroes, yet also said they were in favor of dialogue with America.

"There is a large group of people right on the edge," Hayden adds. "They want dialogue but feel they are under attack. The question is which way they are going to lean in the future."

To the travelers, it seemed clear that the answer depends on improving communication between Americans and ordinary Muslims to counter the many misperceptions on both sides.

Although they have access to US media, Muslim youths they met often knew little about Islam in America. Some 500 students at a mosque in India were stunned and overwhelmed when they met Ms. Mubarak, who wears the hijab.

"They had this perception there were no Muslims in America, and I could tell them I'm able to cover my hair, that I go to mosque, and there are millions of Muslims like me," she says.

Students may be best ambassadors

Such experiences have led Ahmed to tell the State Department that young Americans, including Muslims, are the best ambassadors the US could have in the Muslim world. Not only do they make friends readily, he says, but they are also willing to listen.

Sessions with students might begin in an icy or even hostile tone. "But when they saw we wanted to listen, they were surprised and thrilled, and you saw a change in tone," Mubarak says. "It made an impact wherever we went."

"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.)

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.

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