Published on Loon Watch
Robert Spencer, the administrator of the blog JihadWatch, is known for painting all Muslims as extremists. In a recent post titled “Akbar Ahmed, advocate of ‘dialogue,’ claims ‘Islamophobes’ are ‘linking Islam to violence, terrorism and intolerance,” Spencer argues that Professor Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, is “disingenuous” in promoting interfaith dialogue and interested in converting non-Muslims to Islam. Spencer also calls him an “Islamic supremacist” and likens him to Sayyid Qutb, the 20th century Muslim extremist.
To refute Spencer’s accusations, I will look to the example of Professor Ahmed and his relationships with non-Muslims, through which he promotes interfaith dialogue. In doing so, I prove that he is a leading Muslim figure in the fight against religious extremism and that not all Muslims are extremists, as Spencer claims.
I am a Roman Catholic student and assistant to Professor Ahmed, who is like a father to me. He does not treat me differently for being Catholic because he sees Christians and Muslims as equal members of the Abrahamic family. In 2008, Professor Ahmed and his wife had dinner at our family home in suburban Boston. Over Italian food, he shared with my mother, a Roman Catholic and Italian American, several stories of his childhood days in Pakistan. He was educated by Christians at Forman Christian College in Lahore and at Burn Hall in Abbottabad, which was run by Roman Catholic priests. Touching upon these experiences in the recent New York Times article “Pakistan’s Persecuted Christians,” Professor Ahmed wrote: “We loved and respected our Christian teachers, and they us. We never doubted that harmony and cooperation between faith groups were not only possible, but also completely normal. It was the reality of our lives.” Religious tolerance was built into Professor Ahmed’s life from his earliest days, which is why he is naturally inclined to speak and write about how Muslims and non-Muslims can coexist.
Professor Ahmed has also risked his own life in trying to build bridges between his Muslim and Christian friends in Pakistan. In December 2013, he gave a lecture at Forman Christian College, despite the police warning that the Pakistani Taliban had dispatched bombers to the city as an act of revenge for the killing of a former Pakistani Taliban leader. Professor Ahmed’s lecture titled “Building Bridges over Troubled Waters” demanded that Muslims be more tolerant of Christianity and other non-Muslim faiths in Pakistan. By supporting the rights of non-Muslims, he advocates for religious freedom and equality in a country which is rife with discrimination and persecution.
Developing friendships with Christian leaders has always been a priority for Professor Ahmed. After the events of September 11th, 2001, he befriended former Bishop John Chane of the Washington National Cathedral, with whom he co-authored an article with him in 2010 titled “Christians senselessly tormented by extremists in Muslim world.” Professor Ahmed and Bishop Chane called for Muslims to “think of Jesus, so highly revered and loved by both Christians and Muslims,” as a way of building respect and harmony among followers of Christianity and Islam. Instead of supporting Muslims who attack Christians, Professor Ahmed challenges them on how persecuting non-Muslims is contrary to Prophet Muhammad’s philosophy on tolerance.
Alongside his relationships with Christian friends, Professor Ahmed has also developed a powerful friendship with Professor Judea Pearl, a Jew and father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street journalist who was murdered by Muslim extremists in Karachi, Pakistan in 2002. One year later, the American Jewish Committee invited Professors Ahmed and Pearl to lead a nation-wide public dialogue on the divisions between Muslims and Jews. In 2006, they were among the recipients of the first annual Purpose Prize “in recognition of [their] simple, yet innovative approach to solving one of society’s most pressing problems.” Professor Ahmed collaborated with Professor Pearl in order to carve the path for Jewish and Muslim understanding and to promote the dialogue between, and not the clash of, civilizations.
On several occasions, I also personally witnessed Professor Ahmed’s appreciation for Judaism and Jewish leaders in the United States. Upon embarking on “Journey into America,” a fieldwork study we conducted in 2008 and 2009 to understand American identity through the lens of Muslims, he asked Rabbi Susan Talvi of St. Louis, Missouri to bless our project and pray for our safe travels. Rabbi Talvi opened her blessing with one of Professor Ahmed’s favorite Jewish sayings: tikkun olam, or “to heal a fractured world.” He often uses tikkun olam in his lectures around the world as a way to inspire people of all backgrounds to look at Judaism in a more positive light.
Spencer’s accusations of Professor Ahmed are far-fetched conspiracy theories. By ignoring reality, as he so typically does, Spencer once again shows that he is nothing more than a bigot and propagandist.