In Search of Muslim Identity: Akbar Ahmed's Journey into America

05/22/2010 10:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Earlier this month, Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad was arrested for attempting to detonate a vehicle filled with explosives in Times Square. For a moment in time, he became the face of Muslim America to many who fear that the type of chronic terrorism experienced in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq will eventually make its way to America.

At the same time events were unfolding in Manhattan, another son of Pakistan, the brilliant Islamic scholar and anthropologist Akbar Ahmed, was putting the finishing touches on his new book, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam. Akbar has dedicated himself to building bridges of understanding between worlds. When I interviewed him this week, I asked him about the impact of Shahzad's actions on the larger goal of increasing trust and understanding among Muslims and non-Muslims in the U.S. and beyond. A pessimist by no means, he believes that the plot represents a major setback for those in the bridge building business.

It will be too easy for those who have never met a Muslim or visited a mosque to make Shahzad the poster child for their fears and suspicions. Even many who know better will be tempted to generalize or accept the simplifications of demagogues more interested in fanning flames than putting out fires. Ahmed's new book is an antidote to the illusion of simple answers. It presents a broad, deep, and ultimately challenging portrait of the Muslim American experience in all its diversity, challenges, and promise. When Akbar and his team of talented and dedicated researchers began their cross-country journey they set out in search of Muslim American identity. Some 75 cities and 100 mosques later, they have presented a portrait of American identity as well. One of the most interesting themes that emerges from the book is the universal appeal of America's "Founding Fathers." One part of the team's methodology involved a questionnaire that asked respondents to identify a role model. I asked if any consensus candidate emerged among Muslim American responders. One did... none other than, Thomas Jefferson! For those in search of common ground, this result speaks for itself.

Early reviewers have invoked de Tocqueville, and the comparison is more than hyperbole. The insights provided and ideas explored will contribute much to the big idea of building bridges, trust, and hope. Whether "melting pot" or "salad bowl," the American experiment of building history's most tolerant and pluralistic nation is ongoing and our success is largely a measure of how we understand, define, and accommodate the various minority communities that make up the whole. When we make it work here, we send the strongest message to the rest of the world about what is possible.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that in addition to considering Akbar to be a personal friend (you know, the kind other than Facebook), I have also had the opportunity to work with him on various projects over the years. So in addition to my endorsement, I offer the following from no less a source than counterinsurgency expert, Colonel David Kilcullen, who says the book, "should be required reading for anyone grappling with national security, national identity, and national cohesion in today's complex era."

Ultimately, we end up as either part of the solution or part of the problem. Building bridges of understanding that can withstand the actions of the Faisal Shahzad's of the world is the work of the many and not just the few. We can't bridge the understanding gap without knowledge. Journey into America is a major contribution in that regard.