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Four young Americans take a journey into Islam

By Brian Knowlton

Thursday, August 2, 2007

WASHINGTON: It was almost an afterthought for Akbar Ahmed, a Pakistani-born American University professor with a distinguished background as author, director, poet and peacemaker, to bring along four young American students when he set off last year on an ambitious tour to take the post-9/11 pulse of nine predominantly Muslim countries.

But while the youthful four came along partly to assist Ahmed on his logistically complex trip, they also served as witnesses of a particularly delicate point in Islamic-world history, with anti-Americanism near all-time highs and Muslims' frustrations acute but, conversely, with an almost aching potential for progress through frank and respectful dialogue.

"The situation is very grave," said Ahmed, a gently engaging anthropologist. No one knows, he said, what might happen if nuclear-armed Pakistan collapses; if other Muslim countries develop nuclear arsenals; or if Iraq and Afghanistan take turns for the still-worse.

And no one knows whether moderate, modernist strains of Islam, now so widely in retreat, can recover.

As a Cambridge-educated, cricket-playing former Pakistani official, Ahmed said the trip left him "frankly taken aback by the almost-collapse of the modernist model in which I grew up."

The professor and his aides-de-camp found some signs that matters were even worse than outsiders realize, particularly regarding anti-American sentiment.

They met with ordinary people from Damascus to Jakarta, but also with mullahs and imams, even President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, who spoke animatedly of his admiration for Napoleon. Ahmed chronicles the trip in his new "Journey Into Islam."

One group member, Jonathan Hayden, a tall Alabamian, met in Jakarta with Syafi'i Anwar, head of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism. Anwar, who labors for Islamic openness and modernism, lamented a "creeping Shariah-tization." He said he felt isolated and marginalized. Sitting in a restaurant once bombed by Muslim extremists, Anwar glanced frequently over his shoulder, Hayden said.

"The moderates and modernists are so frustrated," Hayden said. "They're putting their necks out, getting no support, and having fatwas issued against them."

Ahmed and his acolytes had a long, tense drive from New Delhi to the prominent but remote Deoband madrasa. As the car left Delhi behind, paved roads gave way to mud, cars to elephants, phone lines to trees. Pressing into ever more desolate surroundings, the group was chilled to hear the fundamentalist views being expounded by their driver and guide, Aijaz Qasmi, a Deoband ideologue who had written a book defending jihad. "That was scaring us," said Hailey Woldt, a Dallas native. "We were in the middle of nowhere with a guy who says Sept. 11 was justified."

Still, Woldt gamely pressed Qasmi to explain his unapologetic support for a form of Islam that justified the killing of innocents. He infuriated her by directing his answers to Ahmed (a matter of Muslim modesty, she later learned). Ahmed motioned subtly to Woldt not to push too hard.

At Deoband, as elsewhere, the Americans at first faced what Frankie Martin, another group member, called "a wave of anger, and a lot of confusion." People, often meeting their first Americans, would frame their questions personally and aggressively: "Why did you invade Iraq? Why are you holding prisoners in Guantánamo?"

Martin finally realized that people were less interested in hearing his answers than in having him listen. When he did so, there was a perceptible warming.

The Muslims the group met everywhere said, above all, that they felt stereotyped and misunderstood by the West, and therefore threatened by it. More than anything, they craved understanding and respect.

So when the group visited the Karachi mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the revered founder of Pakistan, Woldt wanted to show respect.

A tall, slender blonde, Woldt had dyed her hair brown before leaving (her parents had insisted on this; Ahmed in turn promised to watch over the four helpers as if they were his children). As the trip progressed, she began dressing more traditionally. Reaching Jinnah's mausoleum, she realized she had forgotten a head scarf, or hijab, and refused to enter. Ahmed and some Pakistani women assured her she did not need one. But she held firm until she could borrow a scarf.

Ahmed mentioned this later in a talk in Islamabad. Afterward, Woldt said, "I was completely mobbed by people saying: 'Thank you so much! It's so wonderful!' " The Dawn, a leading daily, reported her action on its front page.

But diversity in the nine countries was striking. When Ahmed's research assistant, Hadia Mubarak, an American-born Muslim, tried to enter a university campus in Istanbul, a particularly secular pocket of traditionally secular Turkey, a guard seemed intent on denying her entry precisely because she wore a hijab. "I found it so ironic," said Mubarak, "that, here I am in a Muslim-majority country having a problem with my head scarf, whereas I would never encounter this problem in America."

The group asked Muslims in every country to name their role models. Virtually all named Muhammad, but no clear-cut contemporary model emerged. Teachers told Ahmed, however, that their students were fascinated by Osama bin Laden, more than they would ever admit to strangers.

But one group of Damascus schoolgirls named, of all people, the American television host Oprah Winfrey. Why? She had devoted an hourlong program to explaining Islam to American viewers.

Ahmed said he had not gone a day since Sept. 11, 2001, without striving to build bridges across faiths and cultures. He has befriended Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl, the journalist murdered in Pakistan by terrorists. He supports State Department cultural exchanges. The best thing a U.S. president could do, he said smilingly, is to appoint his four youthful charges as ambassadors to the Muslim world.

In Deoband, the group's jihad-defending guide, Qasmi, gradually warmed to the young Americans and their mentor as the visit wore on. Qasmi accompanied the group back to Delhi, then stayed on. He listened intently to Ahmed's calls for dialogue, and had long, animated talks with the professor's youthful helpers. He stopped referring to them as "American barbarians."

Then he made a surprising offer: to translate Ahmed's "Islam Under Siege" into Urdu. The book talks about dialogue, common humanity and the need for understanding.

The group was moved by Qasmi's gesture, and by what it portended. For Woldt, the blond Texan, "It's like changing the rotation of the Earth."


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