Many Americans have been rattled by President Trump’s recent Executive Order, which temporarily banned the admission of all refugees and most non-citizens from seven majority-Muslim nations before being suspended by a U.S. District Court. Protests erupted across the nation in the immediate aftermath of the Order’s signing, from Pennsylvania Ave., to Omaha, Neb., to Los Angeles International Airport, while many legal visitors and residents of the US caught in the crossfire of the Executive Order sat detained in airports all across the country. A recent town hall meeting at a mosque in Silver Spring, Md. underscored the deep fear gripping the American Muslim community, with some attendees wondering whether they were seeing parallels to the Holocaust. The tears of the Statue of Liberty are flooding the continent.
In the midst of controversies surrounding this travel ban, many Americans remain committed to welcoming and acquainting themselves with their Muslim brothers and sisters. This sentiment is clearly visible in suburban Chevy Chase, Md., less than ten miles from the White House. On January 29, two days after the refugee and travel ban was enacted, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, drew a standing-room-only audience, including several ambassadors, at St. John’s Norwood Episcopal Church during their Adult Education Hour to discuss contemporary Islam in the US, with a particular eye towards current political developments.
The Episcopal Diocese of Washington, of which St. John’s Norwood is a member, has played a very active role in standing up for immigrants and refugees around the globe and calling for the US to reopen its arms for those in need. On January 28, just one day before Ahmed’s lecture, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington released their “Resolution to Reaffirm the Church’s Commitment to Social Justice in a Divisive Political Climate”, which calls upon the Diocese to “reaffirm that we believe that every person is created in God’s image, imbued and blessed with inherent dignity and worth.” The Resolution goes on to state, “We welcome all people in our communities of faith and support other communities of faith, including particularly Muslim communities who may fear persecution.”
It was in this context that Ambassador Anne Derse, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan and Lithuania and an active lay member of the Episcopal Diocese, opened the conversation and introduced Ahmed by praising his work as a “Renaissance man” and his efforts to bridge divides through his work as a scholar, playwright, poet, interfaith practitioner, and diplomat.
The program began with a recording of Ahmed’s poem, “What is it that I seek?,” focusing the audience on the themes of the day - “God’s greatest gift,” “Love, love, love.” Ahmed also proclaimed what an honor it has been for him to work with the Episcopal Diocese over the years on interfaith issues, reflecting back to the First Abrahamic Summit he established in the aftermath of 9/11 with then-Bishop John Chane and Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation.
Yet, Ahmed made clear that this interfaith work is not a matter of the past, exclaiming the importance of the St. John’s Norwood community, the Diocese, and Americans of all faith backgrounds not “[sitting] it out now.” He emphasized the heartbreak that many on all sides of this issue are facing, but expressed particular empathy for the refugees and others who have sacrificed everything only to be turned away from a land which cries out, as famously inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The refugees, as Ahmed reminded the audience, are coming from the land of Rumi, the most beloved poet in the US, and Hafiz, the “Persian Shakespeare”. All Christian Americans should note that Rumi wrote poems in honor of Jesus, while Hafez wrote, “I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through. Listen to this music.” These great poets remind us that Jesus, to Christians and Muslims alike, represents love.
The events of the past few weeks are not only morally dubious, Ahmed explained, but pose grave security challenges moving ahead. Ahmed, as an expert on the political and social dynamics of the Middle East and South Asia and the former commissioner in Waziristan and Baluchistan, Pakistan, emphasized the importance of maintaining strong relationships in the Muslim world in order to effectively fight groups such as ISIS, the scourge of the Middle East. Furthermore, he reminded the audience that many being caught in the crossfire of President Trump’s Executive Order served the US Military as translators in Iraq, and are now being denied support by the country they once served - a rejection which will only sour our relationships in the Middle East. Referring to the case of Hameed Khalid Darweesh, who was held in custody at JFK for 19 hours after being en route to the US when the Executive Order was signed and went into effect, “If this is how this man who sacrificed ten years to serve the US is treated, it is not a good advert for our friends.”
Ahmed worked to place the audience in the shoes of the refugees, stressing that no human ever wants to lose their dignity, but that’s exactly what refugees undergo at every step of their life-altering journey. Ahmed also plainly stated that, as the history of human society reveals, targeting any minority is a very slippery slope that can quickly lead to mass persecution of other minority groups. Appealing to our collective sense of patriotism, he emphasized how it is inherent in our American character to want to do something positive and to want to help the world become a more positive, stable place, making quite clear that we as Americans cannot sit this crisis out. This is America, the land of the Founding Fathers, the land in which in 1786, Thomas Jefferson commissioned a statue of an angel at the University of Virginia carrying a tablet inscribed with the names God, Yahweh, Allah, and Brahma.
Ahmed concluded the talk by reading the wise, gentle words of Ibn Arabi, the famous Sufi master: “My creed is Love; /Wherever its caravan turns along the way, /That is my belief, /My faith.” Ahmed also read aloud the now-famous letter written by a seven-year-old Syrian girl to President Trump, calling for his support of refugee children like herself as she told of the carnage she witnessed all around her in Aleppo. Ahmed explained that as he read this letter, he thought of his own seven-year-old granddaughter, Anah, writing such a sharp, poignant letter - a sentiment that can simply silence a room.
The distinguished audience took full advantage of the Q&A session to further explore what they can do to understand the challenges at hand. One gentleman noted disturbing parallels between the rise of extremism in the highest levels of government in Pakistan in the 1970s and here in the US today, with Ahmed noting the crucial point that once the genie of religious extremism is out, it is very difficult to put back in the bottle. Ahmed also made the key point to another audience member that, in order to strategically fight back and defeat ISIS, governments and others need to work to strengthen the role of tribal elders in these communities, as ISIS is coming out of a breakdown of traditional tribal structures (see The Thistle and the Drone (Brookings Press, 2013), and Ahmed’s 2014 Politico article on this issue), and until the chaos is mitigated through the construction of schools and the bolstering of the foundation of the local economy, ISIS and similar groups will continue to proliferate.
Perhaps most urgently, given the shock of that weekend’s Executive Order, audience members requested Ahmed to share his thoughts on how they could best push back against the refugee ban and immigration restrictions, as well as growing Islamophobia throughout the country. Ahmed replied that it all comes down to interfaith outreach, knowledge of each other and ourselves, and simply reaching out to our neighbors regardless of their faith or culture. It also involves learning about one another and understanding our understated commonalities, such as the admiration by many Christian Americans of Rumi and Hafez and the admiration by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, of President Lincoln. It also involves understanding that all Americans, at the end of the day, treasure the vision of the Founding Fathers and work to carry out their will every single day, no matter their political vision. These foundations of commonality can mend a torn societal fabric.
Following the program, in addition to the outpouring of support from the congregation for Ahmed’s words and insights, Derse wrote a very warm note to Ahmed thanking him for his “inspiriting presentation” to the Parish and expressing hope that they can continue collaborating on future Diocesan programs, given Ahmed’s “great experience and knowledge”.
We are living through trying times for our nation. The vision of America which I was raised to value, which opens its arms to all and embraces strength through pluralism, even when we hit bumps in the road, is being tested in profound and existential ways. Yet, attending a local church and seeing a full house of parishioners eager to listen to my boss and professor, a Muslim scholar and leader, and learn more about Islam in the US today and how to best build interfaith bridges was a hopeful reminder that, while the times are rather turbulent, the sentiments of broad swaths of the American public remain steadfast in favor of pluralism. Let us take away Ahmed’s message moving forward and learn, as Americans, to find our common ground in the vision of the Founding Fathers to restore our sense of unity, and as human beings, to learn how to see one another as both humans and as children in God’s eyes, regardless of faith or creed. May this message of peace building continue to resonate all across our great land, from Ohio to Oregon, from Wisconsin to the White House.