Just weeks after Dr. Ahmed Akbar came to American University in August 2001, his life changed.
“I’m teaching one of my first classes when the plane slams into the Pentagon,” he said. From that moment on, he was on a mission.
“Because my subject is Islam, because I am a Muslim, it makes my task even more urgent,” he said. “I’m trying to create bridges of understanding, trying to create bridges of dialogue, on campus and off campus.”
The relevance of his topic is undeniable considering the unwanted and undeserved attention cast on Islam because of other tragic events — the D.C. sniper shootings in 2002, committed by John Allen Muhammad who was executed Nov. 10, and the Nov. 5 Fort Hood shootings, allegedly committed by Maj. Nidal Hasan. Both men self-identify as Muslims.
“The gap between mainstream Americans and Muslims … is growing wider,” he said.
That’s what spurred Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American and former Pakistani ambassador to the United Kingdom, to lead five young Americans to 75 U.S. cities to learn about the experiences of the 7 million Muslims in America and the perception other Americans have of Muslims.
He surveyed Muslims in nine countries in spring 2006 and discovered that the biggest threat Muslims perceived was the American misperception of Islam.
His American study was encouraging.
“We found a lot of vitality in the Muslim community,” he said. “I found … a sense of pride in being American even after some of the horrors after 9/11.”
“This is the best place in the world to be a Muslim,” he said many told him.
This was illustrated in the reactions of many non-Muslims they met.
“Everywhere we went we found hospitality and that was what impressed me in my study of America,” Ahmed said. “They would open their hearts and chat with us. They were always very forthcoming.”
Jonathan Hayden, Ahmed’s assistant and a member of the team, remembers an elderly woman in Fort Myers, Fla., asking him if Muslims loved their children.
He told her they did, and she said, “Oh, I knew it, I just knew it!” he recalled.
It was a startling example of the lack of knowledge Americans had about Muslims, he said, but also a promising example of their openness and willingness to learn about Muslims.
“People wanted to believe that they’re not bad,” he said. The problem is, “They just see very one-sided news.”
Hailey Woldt, a research fellow on the trip, dressed like a traditional Muslim woman for several legs of the trip and covered her head. She was surprised to find more hostile looks and intolerance in larger cities like Dallas and Miami, and more acceptance in smaller towns, like Arab, Ala.
“You would think bigger cities would be more used to diversity, they would be more open-minded,” she said. “What I found in Arab was people were willing to judge me on a human level.”
In Arab, even though people gave her funny looks initially, they were curious and friendly, she said. But there are still major challenges for Muslims and their relationship with non-Muslims in the United States, Ahmed said.
“The Muslim community is deeply divided along ethnic, sectarian and ideological lines,” Ahmed said. “As a consequence of which, it does not have a leadership that is united … they’re often fighting each other.”
Muslims in the United States can be divided into three groups: African-Americans, Arabs and South Asians, all of which are similarly sized.
African-Americans are the best suited to bridge the gap between non-Muslims and Muslims in America, he said.
“They are natural ambassadors,” he said. “They understand American culture,” in a way immigrants may not and are accepted in a way Muslim immigrants have not been after Sept. 11.
Muslim leaders from all groups must come together and communicate with the non-Muslim community in a sophisticated, cohesive way, he said, particularly after incidents like the Fort Hood shootings.
“I don’t think [average Americans] blame it on Islam,” Woldt said, “But they still don’t understand. They know not all Muslims are like this,” but they need more dialogue, more explanations.
To help facilitate this dialogue, Ahmed and the team created a documentary to spread their findings. The film, called “Journey into America,” has been screened at film festivals in Egypt and France, and at many universities and mosques across the country. Most recently, the documentary was shown at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., this week. Find future screening dates on the team’s blog at: journeyintoamerica.wordpress.com.