Two years ago, I was granted the opportunity of a lifetime. My professor at American University, the Islamic scholar Dr. Akbar Ahmed, invited me along with several other young American assistants on a research trip through the Muslim world. We wanted to speak to Muslims to hear their views on religion, culture, women, politics, and the United States. Our team traveled through the Middle East, South Asia, and Far East Asia to take the pulse of the Muslim world.
We met, interviewed, and distributed surveys to Muslims from a full range of society from students to merchants to politicians like Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and the late Benazir Bhutto. The project culminated in the book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization. (Brookings: 2007)
As young Americans visiting mosques and madrassas, we felt a tangible tension. People would often question us sharply, "Why did you invade Iraq? Why are you holding prisoners at Guantánamo Bay?" At first we attempted to answer their questions, but before long we realized that what they wanted us to do more than anything else was listen to them. They feel Americans don't listen and don't care about the problems of the Muslims. They think America is engaged in a war not against terrorism, but against the whole religion of Islam. Although many Muslims were upset by US foreign policy and wanted political solutions to festering problems such as Palestine, Kashmir, and Chechnya, what angered them the most--we were surprised to discover--was their belief that Americans hated Islam.
Their "proof" was not necessarily the wars in Muslim nations in which the US was engaged but media images coming from the West. In this age of global media, Muslims feel they are unfairly depicted as fanatics, terrorists, and extremists. In surveys distributed during our trip, a strong majority of respondents in every country named "American and Western negative perceptions of Islam" as the number one threat to the Muslim world.
Once we began to listen to people we met, however, and leant an empathetic ear to their grievances, there was a perceptible warming of tensions, even amongst strict conservatives. Muslims, especially the youth, were thrilled we had taken the time to visit them and learn from them.
The Muslims we spoke to on our journey want better relations with the United States, but many are convinced they don't have a willing partner on the other side. Interestingly, many Americans seem to have the same perception, but in reverse. If this is the case, and each side has such negative views of the other and feels threatened by the other, how are we to improve relations?
With this question in mind, our tried and tested team is launching a new project headed by Professor Ahmed, a similar trip but this time through the United States. We want to study the Muslim community in America and hear their thoughts on Islam and experience living in the United States. We also want to talk to Americans of all demographics about what they think of Islam. We are beginning our trip in St. Louis and are traveling for six months across America. Our progress can be followed here on our blog: www.journeyintousa.blogspot.com.
The project is a study of Islam in America but through looking at Islam we plan to ask core questions about American identity that will hopefully lead to a better understanding of America itself and the diverse group of people who make up the country.
Our journey into Islam demonstrated the need to go beneath the surface, to dispense with stereotypes, and have an open mind in order to understand what was actually going on. We hope to accomplish a similar objective our American journey as well. In this environment of conflict and misunderstanding between Islam and the West, we can afford nothing less.
I will be posting here on the sites and sounds of America on what promises to be a fascinating journey. Stay tuned!