In the battle for the soul of Islam, Dr. Akbar Ahmed sees himself as a bridge over the troubled waters between the Muslim world and the West.
His is a precarious position in these turbulent times and one for which he has paid a dear price. He has been threatened, sued, and shunned by fellow Muslims for his willingness to engage in public dialogue with Jews and Christians and for his efforts to present Islam in a way that defies stereotypes about it as a violent and oppressive religion.
A scholar, author, and former Pakistani ambassador to the United Kingdom who will speak in Toledo next week, Dr. Ahmed, 59, has been a leading voice in the discussion about Islam for at least a decade, long before the events of Sept. 11 struck a blow to his religion's image.
Since then, he said, his work has taken on a new sense of urgency.
“The West must know what the rational voices [in Islam] are saying,” he said in an interview this week. “I emphasize tolerance as Islamic, education as Islamic, as absolutely essential features of Islam.”
Dr. Ahmed, who holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, said he is trying to explain another aspect of Islam to the West, not the brand advanced by terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, whom he considers symbolic of a debate that is taking Islam in a wrong and dangerous direction.
“Some say I'm just an apologist for Islam because the real Islam is Osama bin Laden. You can see the dilemma for a person who tries to act like a bridge. It is much easier in this time to be on one side or another.”
Dr. Ahmed sees his present task as twofold: challenging the extremist view of Islam by helping Muslims rediscover the essentials of their faith and encouraging dialogue with Western non-Muslims.
If Muslims would rediscover their faith, he said, “They would learn how tolerant their religion is, how it treats women and how it gives them more rights and status than any other religious system in the world.”
As an anthropologist, Dr. Ahmed tries to distinguish between what is truly Islamic in Muslim society today and what is from local cultures. The answers, he said, raise disturbing questions about the differences between many current practices and Islamic ideals.
For example, he said, in the seventh century, Islam gave women the right to inherit property, to lead armies, to write poetry, and to do anything that men did. “Yet the paradox is that in the 21st century, in many countries women are struggling for those same rights. Obviously, something has gone wrong.”
Ignorance is partly to blame, he said, but so is the impact of European colonialism, which he believes confused many Muslim cultures, making them defensive and more inclined to be protective of their women.
In presenting their religion to non-Muslims, Dr. Ahmed said it is not enough to defend it without engaging in some kind of exchange.
“Otherwise, it becomes a monologue, not a dialogue. Very often, Muslims talk to the West and say, `We are a religion of peace, we treat our women very well, we come in peace.' When you say all that and then someone asks about what happened on Sept. 11 or about the Taliban and its treatment of women, they have no answers.”
Dr. Ahmed said it is important that the West understand the debate that is going on within Islam and support its rational voices. The struggle, he said, is within the very soul of Islam. “The West, I'm afraid, is only half understanding what is going on. Because they don't understand, they may tilt to those people who want further confrontation.”
He said the world is in for a turbulent century if the extremist view of Islam is not challenged.
“Islam means 1.3 billion people. It means 55 states. It means nuclear countries, at least one [Pakistan]. It means 25 million living in the West. When you add all this up, you cannot ignore Islam. That's why it is important for America to understand the landscape and make sure that what is essential to Islam is rediscovered.”
As one of the more progressive voices in the debate and one that is willing to dialogue publicly with Jews and Christians, Dr. Ahmed has often been caught in the crossfire of the battle for Islam.
When he was asked to give the Rabbi David Goldstein Memorial Lecture at a London synagogue, he was urged by some Muslims to decline, even though he was the first Muslim to be invited. A similar fuss erupted when he was asked to speak during evensong at Cambridge University.
“I asked myself if it was worth it. But I felt that if I didn't do this, maybe another Muslim would not be invited. You have to pay a price. I was threatened. There were court cases against me, threats against me. I was trying in a very, very strong way to project what we are discussing as moderate Islam. In the Muslim world, some of this is revolutionary.”
Dr. Ahmed is not the only moderate Muslim to be treated badly for his views. Saad Ibrahim, an Egyptian scholar who has promoted the need for understanding and dialogue and has investigated Muslim movements in his country, is now in jail.
“The sight of him in an iron cage is a metaphor for what is happening in the Muslim world,” Dr. Ahmed said.
“Muslim governments are very repressive these days and very jumpy about Muslim scholars. Governments don't like being told that Islam means tolerance and you are locking up people and torturing them, that Islam means education and you are spending money on tanks and palaces, that Islam means understanding Christians and Jews and you are persecuting them.”
Dr. Ahmed said when he returned home to Pakistan after spending a year at Princeton's prestigious Institute for Advanced Study, he was greeted by a government official who urged him to go back to America and told him, “We don't need scholars in Pakistan. We need people who obey orders.”
His notoriety has had its brighter moments, however. In 1990, Dr. Ahmed became the first Muslim to be asked by the Royal Institute of Anthropology to give a lecture on Islam to Princess Diana.
A rare photograph of him speaking to her was published in Diana: Her Last Love, which also includes a chapter on the lecture he gave the princess. A second photograph in the book depicts a sunbathing, bikini-clad Diana on a hotel balcony in Switzerland reading Dr. Ahmed's 1994 book, Living Islam.
Dr. Akbar Ahmed will speak at the University of Toledo Student Recreation Center at 3:30 p.m. Friday on “Islam: Clash or Dialogue of Civilizations.” He also will give a lecture, “Islam through the Prism of History,” and show his television documentary, Living Islam, at 4 p.m. May 4 in the Islamic Center, 25877 Schneider Rd., Perrysburg, where he will speak again at 12:30 p.m. May 5.