Battle for Pluralistic America: Grappling with Islam

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This year America faces an epic battle for the soul of the nation, with the forces of primordial, pluralist, and predatory identity clashing over which vision of the nation will prevail. One of the pivotal issues which will decide the path we follow is our response to the challenge of Islam.
Muslim-Americans are facing rising pressures. Vile remarks against Islam are regularly heard atpolitical rallies. Admirable gold-star Muslim-American parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan are facing vicious attacks for their public remarks about Donald Trump and the Constitution. American Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad feels unsafe in her own neighborhood because of street harassment based on her faith. The ongoing attacks around the globe in the name of Islam have only added fuel to the fire and elevated these pressures on the Muslim community in the West.
While the siren cries remain loud, not all Americans are shutting their doors on our Muslims neighbors. On August 7, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, was invited to the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC to address the congregation about Islam and the West and the importance of promoting the dialogue of civilizations by The Reverend Dr. Quinn Fox and Church Elder Ambassador David Mack, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs and U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Ahmed’s address to the Adult Sunday School Plenaries was the first Muslim address to the Sunday School program in years and drew a standing-room-only audience. Mack, a key organizer, shared with me beforehand that, because of Ahmed’s fame, the Church was expecting a larger audience for his address then they received for any other speaker in the series.
For a Muslim to speak in any mainline Protestant church – on a Sunday morning no less – is an inherently noteworthy occasion. It becomes especially remarkable considering these are no ordinary times, and the National Presbyterian Church is no ordinary neighborhood church.
In this time of great tension and unabated threats towards American Muslims, for a top Muslim scholar to venture out into a Christian church not knowing what sort of response he will receive and whether he may be met with violence is quite remarkable. Many American Muslims are choosing to keep their heads below the surface and avoid doing anything that may draw attention. One never knows when someone adamantly opposed towards the community may launch an attack. This sort of tension and fear is something that we in the American Christian community as a majority simply cannot fully grasp, but something of which we must be fully aware as fellow Americans.
The National Presbyterian Church has a distinguished history of building bridges with outside communities. It was founded in the late 1700s as a house of worship for freemasons working on the White House. The Church went on to make history in becoming the only church in Washington to welcome famed Abolitionist Frederick Douglass to speak at the pulpit during the height of the Abolitionist Movement. Furthermore, President Eisenhower was baptized at the Church upon entering the White House, and the Church has even hosted global dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth II and Mother Teresa. Today, located in Northwest Washington, the church draws its distinguished congregation from many circles of life. Among a number of top diplomats and government officials who worship here, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was a congregant during her time of service and Senator Elizabeth Dole currently worships at the church.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed addresses an enthusiastic full-house audience at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC on Sunday, August 7. Ahmed in his address sought to reach out and address some of the widespread misconceptions about Islam and Muslims often heard in the U.S. today. 
Ahmed began his remarks by condemning the vicious killing of a priest in Rouen, France by sympathizers of ISIS while celebrating mass. Ahmed remarked that he felt the attack on a particularly personal level as he had been educated by Catholic priests in Pakistan. As Ahmed proclaimed, how could a Muslim shoot and kill a man whose sole purpose in life is to share with us the ideal for humanity and push us to fight for this ideal?
Ahmed challenged us to reframe our understanding of international acts of terror – a core issue in the minds of many Americans. If we as Americans and as global citizens are going to make any progress in countering terrorism and prejudice, Ahmed explained, we need to understand the forces at play. To reach such a point of understanding is challenging, Ahmed recognized, when there is so much confusion, emotion and prejudice wrapped up in the mainstream analysis of security.
Ahmed found over the past three years while conducting fieldwork for his latest project, Journey into Europe (Brookings Press forthcoming), young European Muslims commit violent acts largely due to an overwhelming sense of alienation, not Quranic inspiration. Many of these young European Muslims feel rejected by their home societies and struggle to connect with their immigrant parents, while also failing to find relevant religious guidance from imams who barely even speak the local language. Faced with the troubles of adolescence – and as Ahmed put it, what teenager is not troubled – many of these young Muslims are turning instead to imams who are preaching an extreme, literalist version of Islam online. Ahmed suggested that if these perpetrators had a better support network at home and a better understanding of their own faith, they would be less likely to carry out such evil acts.
Ahmed was adamant that such extremist, literalist interpretations of Islam were not representative of all Muslims. As he first outlined in Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (Brookings Press, 2007), the Muslim world is shaped by the constant battle between three competing forces in the modern era: Literalism, which sees Islam as under siege and in need of defense from the world; mysticism, which maintains a transcendent, peaceful worldview in the context of Islam; and modernism, which seeks to merge the tenets of modern life and the Muslim faith. These divisions provide a lens through which to understand the clashes inside and outside of Muslim societies.
Perhaps the most important chord Ahmed struck during his address is the value placed on education in Islam. Ahmed told of how he always encourages young Muslims to remember one of The Prophet Muhammad’s most famous sayings: “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” Following Ahmed’s Sunday School session, Mack reminded us that another hadith even goes as far as to proclaim, “Seek knowledge even in China.” As these hadiths make clear, the pursuit of knowledge is central to Islam – something that many in the West and the Muslim world today fail to recognize.

Senior Reverend Dr. David Renwick of the National Presbyterian Church thanks Ahmed following his address for his well-received insights into the World of Islam. 
Even in this tense time of Trump, the audience’s response to Ahmed’s address was exceptionally warm. Smiles filled the room and many in the crowd approached him afterwards to thank him. Rev. Richard Cizik, one of America’s top Evangelical leaders, commented that the warmth and love behind Ahmed’s words moved the audience.
The congregation’s interest and clear desire to engage with seminal issues was clearly demonstrated during the question and answer session. Senior Reverend Dr. David Renwick inquired why Islamic governments appear to be more theocratic than those in Christian and Jewish societies. In response, Ahmed explained that Muslim leaders attempt to follow in the path of the Prophet, who fulfilled many roles – as a prophet, a commander-in-chief, a head of state, and a head of household.
Another audience member further inquired whether the importance of education in the Muslim world is sufficient to address widespread youth unemployment in countries such as Egypt. Ahmed replied that while education may not be sufficient in providing jobs for everyone in poorer countries, education is necessary for people to make informed decisions about their government and leadership – preconditions for equitable economic growth. To illustrate the dire need for basic levels of education in parts of the Muslim world, Ahmed shared that in some tribal areas in Pakistan, the literacy rate for women is as low as zero. Auditory astonishment ensued.
The good news is that there appears to be a great willingness in many American circles to learn more about Muslim society and this faith of more than one billion people. As a Christian, I was deeply moved by the congregation’s positive response to Ahmed’s wisdom, knowledge and warmth, and to see the desire that so many Americans have to learn about our shared humanity. In order for Pluralist America to prevail and carry out the vision of our Founding Fathers, it is vital we invite our neighbors inside our circles, much like Ahmed’s neighbors at National Presbyterian invited him into their community, and learn to listen and ask questions. As the events of the last few months remind us all, without knowledge and understanding, we will be without peace.

Ahmed gathers with Church Elder Amb. David Mack (right) and leading Evangelical minister Reverend Richard Cizik (left) following his address to the National Presbyterian Church. 

Article Courtesy – The Huffington Post