Akbar Ahmed studies differences but seeks unity

Visiting scholar Akbar Ahmed enjoys cultivating friendships, a habit that probably suited him well while he was Pakistan's ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Even on the most informal of occasions (a brief conversation with a guest), Ahmed and his wife, Zeenat, are charming hosts. They bring out their china set and serve the stranger tea and honey-roasted walnuts. It's an effort to make the guest comfortable, especially since Ahmed is capable of delving quickly into some of life's most serious questions.

Ahmed's passion goes far beyond making friends and putting people at ease. His life's work revolves around creating global understanding among people of diverse backgrounds. Currently, he is a visiting professor in the Department of Anthropology and Stewart Fellow of the Humanities Council at Princeton. In addition to serving as a diplomat, Ahmed has written numerous academic books and articles on anthropology, commented frequently in the media on Islamic affairs and produced an award-winning film.

His most recent academic interest is the revival of religion, which he believes is a response to globalization. Traditional cultures, chafing under the dramatic changes ushered in by technology and the expansion of markets, are trying to hold on to their identity and way of life partly through religion, Ahmed said.

"Those changes are creating a challenge to traditional society, challenging the ritual, the rites of passage -- the way people get married, the way people die, the way people live -- all these traditional patterns of society that we anthropologists study," he said. "There are new ways of doing things and whenever there are some new ways which are so dramatic and so sharp, people get worried. They don't want change so quickly.

"They want to hang on to traditional concepts of culture and not be washed out or absorbed in the process of globalization," Ahmed said. The interaction between religions also intrigues Ahmed. He believes that we live in a time of unprecedented potential for creating a more harmonious global community.

"A century ago, you had a very interesting situation. The world was more demarcated: You had Europe and America, which identified with Christianity; there was no Jewish state; and Muslims were living in Africa and Asia, mostly under the colonies. Today, you see all these old patterns have been scrambled," Ahmed said. "There are all kinds of levels of confrontation and even violence as a result of these world religions now juxtaposed and living together.

"So I find the 21st century a very exciting time to be alive because so much is changing, so much is happening and there are so many possibilities in the air for serious understanding and dialogue between these world religions."

In particular, Ahmed is concerned about the way the non-Islamic world views Muslims, and how such opinions obstruct peace in regions where religious hostilities flare. For many, he is considered an ambassador between Islam and the West.

"Islam is one of the most misunderstood religions in the world, for many reasons," Ahmed said. "For historical reasons, it is because Islam has been in a position of confrontation with Europe and the West for a thousand years, starting from the Crusades. And during the 19th and 20th centuries, Islamic lands were colonized so once again there was conflict. Thirdly, to many people in the West, particularly in America, they simplified Islam and equated it to the Arabs in the East because there are strong feelings for Israel for many Americans. They equate Islam with the Arabs and Israel with themselves and therefore they have a negative idea of Islam."

But Ahmed does not blame the non-Muslim world alone for distorting Islam. He said he believes Muslims also have to take responsibility. Ahmed condemns Muslims who misappropriate Islam to justify abuses toward women and minorities in certain parts of the world.

"How many people," Ahmed asked rhetorically, "know the greatest names of God in Islam are compassion and mercy?"

According to Ahmed, the Muslim world today could benefit from the political model set forth by one of his country's political heroes, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, who succeeded in creating Pakistan as a homeland for India's Muslims in 1947.

Jinnah's death the following year contributed to the marginalization of his legacy, according to Ahmed, who is convinced that what Jinnah envisioned is a model worthy to be emulated by today's Muslim leaders. To that end, Ahmed embarked on an ambitious -- and sometimes controversial -- project 10 years ago to revive Jinnah's accomplishments.

The result was four projects on the life of Jinnah: a feature film, "Jinnah," that premiered in Princeton in October; a documentary called "Mr. Jinnah, the Making of Pakistan"; an academic book titled "Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity"; and a comic book. The documentary is scheduled for a spring viewing on campus.

Through all these media, Ahmed sought to spread as far as possible the ideas, the personality and the symbolism of a certain political paradigm in contemporary Islamic discourse.

"Mr. Jinnah provides a model of a modern Muslim leader who believes in human rights, women's rights, minority rights and law and order," Ahmed said. "If his model succeeds, there can be harmony and dialogue in parts of the world. If his model fails, for us in the Muslim world, we are in trouble."

One gets the sense that Ahmed's project resonates with a number of people. At the recent film showing at the University, members of the audience wept and gave it a standing ovation. One man even proclaimed the feature film, which is a fictional account of history, "a Bible on Pakistan."

"I am pleased at the response," Ahmed said. "On one level, all four projects have done very well."

In addition to promoting a better understanding of Islam, Ahmed plans to spend his fellowship at Princeton teaching, promoting peace and friendships among people of faith, and working on a new book titled "Negotiating God: Society and the Idea of the Divine in the 21st Century." He also is scheduled to give a series of lectures in cities across the country at the invitation of the Alumni Council.

"Akbar Ahmed is not only a world renowned anthropologist, but someone who has devoted himself to the importance of moderate Islam in his native Pakistan and in international affairs," said Lawrence Rosen, chair of the anthropology department. "That he has agreed to precept in the introductory anthropology course this term is a tribute to his commitment in the furthering of anthropological knowledge at all levels. His course next spring on religion and anthropology will be a unique opportunity for students to further their appreciation of different cultures and the meaning of religion in everyday life."

Contact: Justin Harmon (609) 258-3601