Muslims are facing attacks from all directions in today’s America. In recent weeks, more reports of Muslims being harassed and threatened in public, from Virginia, to Texas, to Oregon, have heightened the sense of hostility many Muslim Americans have long felt in their everyday lives.
Thankfully, there are still moments of great pride for American Muslims in this toxic environment. On May 10, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University (AU), was awarded the 2016-17 School of International Service (SIS) Scholar/Teacher of the Year award. As a leading faculty member of SIS, one of America’s top ten schools of international affairs, Ahmed received this award in recognition of his “innovative and important scholarship” and his “dedicated, rigorous, and inspiring mentoring of our students.” Joined by his family and two top assistants, Ahmed was presented this prestigious award before a standing ovation of SIS staff and faculty.
Awarded by SIS Dean James Goldgeier, who described Ahmed as “a legend,” the award ceremony warmly celebrated Ahmed’s achievements as a member of the SIS faculty. Goldgeier spoke highly of Ahmed’s contributions to both his field and the student experience in SIS. He also discussed the tremendous impact of Ahmed’s quartet of studies examining relations between the West and the Muslim world, highlighting in particular Ahmed’s forthcoming book, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Press).
Ahmed’s time at AU has been simply remarkable. Ahmed, who arrived at AU in Fall 2001, was in the midst of teaching his second-ever class at AU when that fateful plane flew into the Pentagon on 9/11. At that moment, he knew that the rest of his life and career must be dedicated to bridging the now massive divide between the West and the Muslim world. In the years since, Ahmed has written several books and plays, a collection of poetry, and countless articles in this pursuit. He has also produced two films, regularly appeared in the global media, and delivered countless lectures around the world.
This award is particularly special for Ahmed in light of the challenges he has faced in reaching this pinnacle in his career. Ahmed arrived in the US in 2000, where, as a Pakistani Muslim, he would suddenly be thrust into a new and complex cultural environment without the privilege of simply becoming a neutral observer of American society. Ahmed had come to the US at a time when much of the public discourse was about Islam and was swirling with misconceptions about the faith, when Muslims are constantly on the defensive about their faith and culture. Despite these challenges, Ahmed has never sought to hide his faith or culture, but rather to use his unique perspective and his Islamic faith as the basis for building bridges. This is an accomplishment in which all Muslims can take pride and use as inspiration for living out their true identity. If Ahmed can both be a practicing Muslim and a public figure who contributes at this high a level, who is to say other Muslims cannot.
The impact of Ahmed’s award also reflects in the lives of his students. When Ahmed and I first met in 2013, I was just another American college student with very little international experience. I was the only male student in Ahmed’s course on Islam in America, and Ahmed used to joke that I simply could not get sick and miss a class, as I would leave our gender wholly unrepresented. Two years later, mere weeks after graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I was offered the opportunity to take over as his chief of staff.
May this great teacher remain uncowed by rampant Islamophobia and teach the students of American University, America, and the world how to light the path to peace. I am so delighted that Ahmed has now received this award which celebrates his remarkable attributes as a great scholar/teacher.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th, 2017.