Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization

Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization

by Akbar Ahmed
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Brookings Institution Press


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Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization

Globalization, the war on terror, and Islamic fundamentalism—followed closely by a rise in Islamophobia—have escalated tensions between Western nations and the Muslim world. Yet internationally renowned Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed believes that through dialogue and understanding, these cultures can coexist peacefully and respectfully. That hope and belief result in an extraordinary journey. To learn what Muslims think and how they really view America, Ahmed traveled to the three major regions of the Muslim world the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization is the riveting story of his search for common ground. His absorbing narrative and personal photos bring the reader on a tour of Islam and its peoples. Ahmed sought to understand the experiences and perceptions of ordinary Muslims. Visiting mosques, madrassahs, and universities, he met with people ranging from Pakastan President Pervez Musharraf to prime ministers, princes, sheikhs, professors, and students. He observed, listened, and asked them questions. For example, who inspires them? What are they reading? How do the Internet and international media impact their lives? How do they view America, the West, and changes in society? Ahmed's anthropological expedition enjoyed extensive access to women and youths, revealing unique information on large yet often misunderstood populations. Lamentably, he found high levels of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism and a widespread perception that Islam is under attack from the West. But he also brought back reason for hope. He returned from his groundbreaking travels both impressed with the concerned, kind nature of the individuals he encountered and invigorated with the vitality and passion they displayed. Journey into Islam makes a powerful plea for forming friendships across religion, race, and tradition to create lasting peace between Islam and the West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815701316
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 12/01/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 323
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is former high commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain, and he has taught at Princeton, Harvard, and Cambridge Universities.

Read an Excerpt

Journey Into Islam

The Crisis of Globalization
By Akbar Ahmed

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2007 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-0132-3

Chapter One

An Anthropological Excursion into the Muslim World

"The actions of Osama bin Laden, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban, even if they kill women and children, are perfectly justified in Islam." These chilling words, presaging more murder and mayhem, were casually uttered on a sunny day under a blue Indian sky by the politest of young men. The speaker was our host, Aijaz Qasmi, always smiling faintly behind his thick glasses and beard, and dressed in traditional South Asian Muslim attire, white linen pants with a long coat and small white skullcap. He was escorting me and my companions to an important stop on our journey into Islam: Deoband, the preeminent madrassah, or religious educational center, of South Asian Islam. Aijaz was one of its chief ideologues.

Deoband has given its name to a school of thought within Islam. Like the better-known Wahhabi movement in the Arab world, it stands for assertive action in defending, preserving, and transmitting Islamic tradition and identity. And like the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East, Deoband is a beacon of Islamic identity to many Muslims. To many in the West, Deoband and its spokespersons such as Aijaz would be the "enemy."

As we neared our destination, the landscape grew desolate; there were no road signs in any language, no gas stations, not even tea stalls. With lofty hopes of learning something about the state and mood of Islam in the age of globalization, I began my journey on this isolated narrow road several hours from Delhi. If we were taken hostage or chopped up into little bits, I whispered to my young American team, "no one will know about it for at least two weeks."

This was an attempt at levity to keep our travels from becoming too daunting for my companions-my students, Hailey Woldt and Frankie Martin-eager to venture into the world with the boldness that only comes with youth. Since I was an "honored" guest and said that Hailey was like my "daughter" and Frankie like my "son," I was certain we would be perfectly safe. Although these students had read E. M. Forster's classic depiction of Islam in A Passage to India, they had also been brought up on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. They were accompanying me on this journey with total confidence, trusting their professor to bring them back safely. Like Professor Jones, I had to keep them out of harm's way yet enable them to participate fully in the study.

Neither of them had been to the Muslim world before, now a particularly troubled one. Undeterred by this or the concerns of their family and friends, they took time off from their academic year, paid for the travel themselves, and placed their trust in me. No teacher can expect a higher reward, and I hope the reader will appreciate why they became such a special part of the project for me. I know they reciprocated.

During our conversation in the van, Aijaz, who was sitting in the front seat and looking back, seemed to brush off any of Hailey's questions and direct the conversation to me. As a Muslim, I understood that for him this was orthodox behavior. He was honoring Hailey's status as a woman by not looking at her. To do so would be considered a sign of disrespect. He would have noted with appreciation that she was dressed in impeccable Muslim clothes, which she had gotten from Pakistan: a white, loose shalwar kameez and a white veil to cover her head in the mosque, as is customary.

He won't look at me, she scribbled on a note in obvious indignation and passed it to me discreetly. Although I could see Hailey emerging as a perceptive observer of culture and custom in the tradition of the great Western female travelers to the Muslim world of the twentieth century, her American sense of impatience was never too far beneath the surface. I signaled to her to calm down. This was neither the time nor the place to escalate a clash of cultures.

One question she had posed was whether attacks against innocent people were justified in the Quran. We were talking of jihad, which derives from an Arabic word meaning "to strive" but which people in the West have come to associate with aggressive military action. For the Prophet, the term had two connotations: the "greatest jihad," the struggle to elevate oneself spiritually and morally, which has nothing to do with violence, least of all against innocent women and children; and the "lesser jihad," the defense of one's family and community in the face of attack. In this case, too, there is no mention of aggression. According to Aijaz, Muslim attacks on Americans and Israelis, which he considered one entity, were actually acts of self-defense; furthermore, American and Israeli women and children were not necessarily innocent, as was clear from their support of the military committing atrocities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine. Aijaz believed that Americans backed by Israelis even encouraged torture in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. Since the American and Israeli people could stop these crimes but were not doing so, they were theoretically guilty of the same atrocities.

Aijaz had made these arguments in a recent bestseller written in Urdu, Jihad and Terrorism. Then in its seventh edition, the book reflected Muslim outrage because Muslims were under attack and being killed throughout the world. So-called Islamic violence, wrote Aijaz, was a justifiable defense against "American" and "Israeli barbarism." Aijaz felt his way of life, his culture, and his religion were facing an onslaught. These "barbarians," said Aijaz, were even assailing the holy Prophet of Islam, "peace be upon him." Hence every Muslim was morally obligated to join the jihad, that is, the defense of the great faith of Islam and their "brothers" all over the world. Speaking passionately now, Aijaz told us that Muslims will never give up their faith, will defend Islam to the death, and will triumph in the U.S. war on Islam. For Aijaz, the true champions of Islam were the Taliban-and Osama bin Laden, to whose name he added the reverential title of sheikh. This attitude, I thought, was going to complicate matters for Muslims like me, who wished to promote Islam's authentic teachings of compassion and peace.

To see whether he tolerated more moderate Muslim views, I asked his opinion of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and a leader who promoted women's rights, human rights, and respect for the law. To my surprise, he did not condemn Jinnah as a godless secularist but thought him a great political leader, though not a great Muslim leader. This meant he was not necessarily a role model for Muslims and was thus irrelevant for Islam. Jinnah could be acknowledged for parochial reasons, to be sure. A redeeming feature, for Aijaz, was that one of Jinnah's close supporters was a well-known Deoband religious figure. For Aijaz, the crux of every argument was the Deoband connection. Aijaz's own surname-Qasmi-was inspired by Maulana Qasim Nanouwoti, the founding father of Deoband.

When I sought his views about the mystical side of Islam, Aijaz became circumspect. I mentioned Moin-uddin Chisti, the famous Sufi mystic (1141-1230 C.E.) who promoted a compassionate form of Islam and who is buried in Ajmer, in the heart of Rajasthan deep in rural India. Aijaz said he had never visited Ajmer, looked away in silence, and left the matter there. Perhaps Ajmer was a dark and dangerous avenue for him to explore.

On the subject of technology, Aijaz's answers were again surprising. Instead of condemning modern technology as an extension of the West, which I thought he might do, he proudly pulled out his business card bearing the title "Web Editor" for the Deoband website. In this capacity, Aijaz explained, he was able to address, guide, and instruct thousands of young Muslims throughout South Asia. He saw no contradiction in using Western technology to disseminate the Islamic message.

This and other of Aijaz's remarks made all too clear the enormity of the gap between the United States and the Muslim world. Frankie's sober comment captured it simply and precisely: "I thought things were bad while I was in D.C., but it's even worse." On that day, these young Americans came face to face with their nation's greatest challenge in the twenty-first century: the crisis with the Muslim world.

Aijaz's Vision of Globalization

Aijaz was in fact commenting on globalization without once using the word. In his mind, globalization was synonymous with the greed of multinational corporations that exploited the natural resources of Muslim countries, the anger vented by the United States in the bombing of Afghanistan and then Iraq after September 11, 2001, and the ignorance displayed in the Western media about Aijaz's religion, culture, and traditions. Aijaz also associated it with a culture of gratuitous sex and violence, glorified by Hollywood. Americans, he added, constitute only 6 percent of the world's population yet consume 60 percent of the world's natural resources, as confirmed by the epidemic of obesity throughout the country and the extravagance of even the middle class.

Aijaz had unwittingly equated the actions of the United States-and, correspondingly, the forces of globalization-with the "three poisons" that the Buddha had warned could destroy individuals and even societies: greed, anger, and ignorance. In Islamic theology, the "cure" for precisely these vices is adl (justice), ihsan (compassion/goodness), and ilm (knowledge). The antidote for greed is justice for others; anger can only be controlled by compassion; and ignorance dispelled by knowledge.

I dwell on Aijaz's impassioned arguments at the outset of this discussion because they epitomize the crisis that globalization has wrought on the Muslim world and that is essential for Western minds to grasp. Contrary to the concepts of adl and ihsan, television screens are showing Muslims that CEOs of multinational corporations can amass tremendous wealth while other people in their own countries and elsewhere are starving, that thousands of innocent people can be killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, that the Palestinians in the heartland of the Muslim world can be oppressed without receiving any help or hope from the West, that hundreds of millions of Muslims can live under harsh governments with little hope of justice. Muslims feel they have no voice in these circumstances and are not invited to participate in many of the global events that concern them. To add insult to injury, American culture has invaded their society through the media and the deluge of Western products. The Muslim reaction to all this is colored with passion and anger. To cope with what is perceived as an out-of-control world and preserve their sense of security, Muslims are returning to their roots.

These overwhelming circumstances have encouraged some Muslim communities to cloak themselves with a defensive, militant, and strained attitude toward the West. This outlook, promulgated by influential leaders of these communities, threatens and unsettles human discourse globally, because it values indifference and cruelty, permits men like bin Laden to become heroes, and goes against the grain of notions of justice, compassion, and wisdom common to all religious traditions.

Since the "war on terror" was launched, communities in Iraq, and to some degree Afghanistan, have descended into anarchy, allowing ancient religious, tribal, and sectarian rivalries to surface once again. In the absence of daily calm, people begin to look at the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, for example, with something close to nostalgia. People live in a perpetual state of uncertainty: not knowing whether their homes are safe day or night, whether they will arrive at work, or whether their children will return home from school. Even worse, the killers remain unknown and at large. Some blame American soldiers, others the shadowy insurgents, and still others elements within the Iraqi government forces. The war on terror is degenerating into a war of all against all. Taking a page from English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Muslim jurists have historically considered tyranny preferable to anarchy, and this was reiterated in our conversations across the Muslim world. Over a millennium ago, Imam Malik, a highly influential jurist and founder of one of the four primary legal schools in Islam, stated: "One hour of anarchy is worse than sixty years of tyranny."

While no one denies the great benefits of globalization-economic development policies like microfinancing have lifted millions out of poverty in India and Bangladesh, and new technologies have permitted the swift distribution of medical and relief aid to Pakistan's earthquake victims and to the survivors of Indonesia's tsunami-many of the world's citizens associate globalization with a lack of compassion. In better times, compassion could have prevented the savage cruelties of the past few years, such as the shooting of an entire Haditha family by American soldiers and the beheading of Nick Berg in Iraq and of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Since the war on terror began, neither side has regained its sense of balance, compassion, and wisdom that it once held so dear.

Throughout our journey, each and every discussion led directly or indirectly to events that took place far away in America on September 11, 2001, and to the passions generated by that day. The United States and the Muslim world had become irreversibly connected in an adversarial relationship, and henceforth every action taken by one side would elicit a reaction from the other. September 11 changed and challenged both worlds in unexpected ways.

September 11, 2001

On September 11, 2001, a few minutes before 9 a.m., I walked into a classroom at American University in Washington, D.C., having joined the teaching staff only a few days earlier. I was about to hold my second class on the subject of Islam, which at that point seemed of remote interest to the young Americans seated before me. I wondered whether I would ever get their attention.

I had hardly begun explaining that Islam can only be understood in the complex framework of theology, sociology, and international affairs, that its story centers on a major traditional civilization confronting the forces of globalization, when two students abruptly left the class, only to return a few minutes later looking dazed and agitated. A ripple of hushed murmurs spread throughout the room. The only words I could make out were, "Something terrible has happened." A few more students walked out of the class, their cell phones in hand. Muslims had flown a plane into a building in New York, someone whispered. An ashen-faced student said a plane full of passengers had also smashed into the Pentagon, only a few miles away from our campus. This was beginning to sound like an implausible Hollywood film.

As I tried to continue my discussion of U.S.-Muslim relations, little did I realize that the most climactic moment of American history in the twenty-first century was taking place right outside our walls and a few hundred miles to the north. It did not take long for the enormity of the morning's events to sink in. Whatever had happened and whoever was responsible, Muslims everywhere would be tainted by the tragedies in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. The world would never be the same again.

What was transpiring was a massive Muslim failure. Not only were the perpetrators Muslims, but they had committed an act forbidden in Islam, namely the killing of innocent people. On a deeper level, Muslim leaders had failed to adapt to the rules of the modern world, and Muslim scholars had failed to disseminate their wisdom throughout their societies. Equally important, the world at large had neglected to understand Islam and accommodate one of its great and widespread religions.

Before arriving in Washington, I had spent many years explaining the complexities of Islam to a variety of people in different forums. At times I spoke to Muslim audiences to help them understand their world. As someone who had lived and worked in both Muslim and Western nations, I suspected that a storm of unimaginable ferocity was brewing, and when it finally did arrive on September 11, the need for understanding had become more urgent than ever before.

I was confident, however, that Americans would react with common sense, compassion, and wisdom. Such a response would not only show moral strength but also set the planet on a sound course for the future. Little did I suspect that the response would come so swiftly and consist of unalloyed anger.

As a scholar teaching Islam and a Muslim living in the United States, I saw that I was facing the greatest challenge of my life. I resolved to put to good use my education, my friendships, and experiences in different Muslim communities: I would redouble my efforts to help non-Muslims and Muslims alike appreciate the true features of Islam and thereby forge a bond between them. Without that common understanding, the entire world would sink deeper into conflict.


Excerpted from Journey Into Islam by Akbar Ahmed Copyright © 2007 by Brookings Institution Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


ONE. An Anthropological Excursion into the Muslim World

TWO. The Struggle within Islam

THREE. Tribes, Women, and Honor in the Age of Globalization

FOUR. Who Is Defining Islam after 9/11 and Why?

FIVE. The Clash of Civilizations?

SIX. Lifting the Veil

Epilogue: The Hope of the World

Appendix: Analysis of the Questionnaires



What People are Saying About This

Anthony Giddens

"Really interesting and important. This book is a break-through in our understanding of the complex relationships between globalization and Islam. Based on in-depth interviews carried out in many countries, it gives a detailed picture of life in the Muslim world. The team of researchers has listened in particular to women and to young people. The result is a book that will be an essential resource for anyone interested in some of the key questions of our times, concerning not just the role of Islam in world society, but differing concepts of religiosity."--(Lord Anthony Giddens, House of Lords and former director, London School of Economics)

Elie Wiesel

"Akbar Ahmed's voice needs to be heard, and his courage strengthened."

Jonathan Sacks

"Akbar Ahmed is one of contemporary Islam's outstanding exponents: a role-model of reason in an age of anxiety, tolerance at a time of tension, and hope when all too many are tempted by despair. In Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization he invites us to listen to the many voices of Muslims today as they face a confusing and often threatening world. It is essential reading, wise, literate, insightful, optimistic, honest and humane, the work of one of the great religious sages of our time."--(Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth)

Tamara Sonn

"Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization is a stunning achievement by one of the world's leading experts on Islam. Based on field research and profound understanding of anthropological and sociological theory, this is the first book that lets Muslims speak for themselves. Readers will be fascinated, finding both diversity in and common ground with the personalities they meet. They'll be left with a sense of optimism that true dialogue between civilizations is not only possible but essential."--(Professor Tamara Sonn, College of William & Mary and Former President of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies)

From the Publisher

"This book is a break-through in our understanding of the complex relationship between globalization and Islam... an essential resource for anyone interested in some of the key questions of our time, concerning not just the role of Islam in world society, but differing concepts of religiosity." —Lord Anthony Giddens, House of Lords and former director, London School of Economics

Lawrence Rosen

"Like the students who went with him to see how Muslims are reacting to post-9/11 events, the reader could ask for no finer guide than Akbar Ahmed in comprehending the deepest feelings and attitudes of the Islamic world. From the highest leaders to the cab drivers one gains a sense of why fundamentalist leaders have displaced national ones in the admiration of people from the Gulf to Southeast Asia. In this eloquent and insightful study Ahmed combines the erudition of a scholar with the passion of an activist to point the way towards understanding and reconciliation. It is a unique reading experience, rich in on-the-ground perception and realistic hope."--(Professor Lawrence Rosen, Princeton University)

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