As an American millennial, most of my generation is fairly pessimistic about the direction our society is taking. Once a country whose most famous beacon of freedom read, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, Americans seem to have lost these ideals somewhere along the path to modernity. Republican presidential debates are littered with Islamophobic rhetoric, intolerance towards immigrants, and statements that contrast with those very ideals so proudly displayed on the Statue of Liberty. “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” stated presidential candidate Ben Carson when asked about America’s religious pluralism and its relation to government. Donald Trump, in his call for a nationwide celebration of Christmas, ignored American diversity yet again and instead tried to force upon society a cookie-cutter monolith of what being ‘American’ means.
Islam regularly receives harsh criticisms from politicians, civilians, and the media alike. But a religion whose doctrine calls for peace, tolerance and love should never be the subject of controversy. Often, the criticisms directed at Islam shed light on the West’s lack of understanding of the religion and its followers. As the US and Europe have been called upon to provide refuge for hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing unrestrained terror in their homeland, it is imperative that these regions begin a conversation about Muslim identity, true Islam, and its compatibility with the West.
I attended one such event on October 15 at St Alban’s Parish, a prestigious organ of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. As one of the most prominent symbols of Christianity in the US, it is unusual to associate DC’s architectural tribute to European Christianity with Islam. However, as I learned last week, the Cathedral’s leadership and parishioners have made it a priority to extend their hand to the Muslim community and enrich their understanding of Muslim identity in the West. They advanced this mission through screening Akbar S Ahmed’s most recent cinematic venture, Journey Into Europe. In the film, Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland, and his team travel through Europe’s most historic regions, explore the intricacies of European identity, seeking to answer the question, “Is Islam compatible with the West?” The answer, as the documentary shows, is overwhelmingly, yes.
The event was attended by the likes of the BBC’s Jane O’Brien, former Pakistani Senator Akbar Khawaja, the USA Director of the British Council Paul Smith, senior German diplomat Stefan Bress and directors from the Muslim Women’s Association of Washington, DC. Reverend Dr Carol Flett introduced Ambassador Ahmed and spoke passionately on the vitality of interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding between religions in today’s globalised society. Reverend Flett understands this imperative step, as she and Ambassador Ahmed have worked together as friends and colleagues since the 9/11 attacks to build interfaith bridges in the community, as well as establishing the first Abrahamic Summit in DC together. She opened the film by highlighting the Syrian migrant crisis and the urgent need for Europe to recognise Muslims’ positive contributions to society and to understand Islam, so that Europeans can welcome their new neighbours with open arms and make strides towards peace. Following Reverend Flett’s introductory speech, Ambassador Ahmed discussed the wide scope of cultures throughout Europe. Many people were very accepting of Muslims and of immigrants, and welcomed them into their countries without a second thought. However, there were also those who led anti-Islam protests, who defaced mosques and harassed peaceful Muslims living in their neighbourhoods. Ambassador Ahmed took great care in his field research to incorporate the entire spectrum of sentiments on Islam and immigration in Europe, a feat that took months of dedication.
The response from the packed audience was unanimous: exuding empathy and enthusiasm. “Ambassador Ahmed, I thought, had reached the pinnacle of his career with his last work, The Thistle and the Drone. How very wrong I was. This work is a step even further to test people to learn about religion. It is ilm — everything is based in knowledge,” Ziad Alahdad, a former director of operations for the World Bank said.
For myself in particular, I was incredibly moved by the film. It took me on a roller-coaster of emotions. I felt inspired by Muslim parliamentarians and their courage in giving the minority population a voice in government. I was infuriated and hurt by leaders of far right parties who unfairly equated Islam with terrorism, and who expressed these views by storming mosques and harassing Muslims. I felt empathetic as Amadou, a 16-year-old refugee from Gambia describes his dreams of education and work, and his reality of starvation, homelessness, and brutality from strangers. I felt truly swept away on this journey into Europe, and motivated to do my part in spreading tolerance towards Muslims.
As an American millennial, I view today’s society at a turning point, and a critical one. My generation is faced with a choice between using our unique access to information in a manner that advocates tolerance and inclusion, or to use it to enhance the voices of those who promote hatred and hostility towards the ‘other’. This is the dilemma the world faces today, and I believe it is imperative that we amplify the voices of those like Ambassador Ahmed.
Today, we are more interconnected than ever. We can read about the stories of hardworking and peaceful Syrian families and their treacherous journeys towards freedom from thousands of miles away; we can see the photos of children barely surviving and donate at the click of a button. Today we have no excuse to generalise, we have no excuse to fear what we do not understand. Information is at our fingertips, and it is critical that we take the opportunity to learn, to grow and to appreciate our differences.
Although many might argue that the future of America looks bleak, I argue that the future is what we make it. As influential figures like presidential candidates Carson and Trump continue to shed a negative light on Islam, the progress of acceptance that peaceful Muslims and non-Muslims have made with each other over the years, regresses. In order to move forward in a positive manner, we must work to understand each other. It is diversity that makes America beautiful, and the suggestion that religious and ethnic pluralism is somehow ‘un-American’ goes against this country’s most fundamental values. As Journey into Europe delves into the complexities of Islam, immigration and identity in Europe, we can all take away a purely human experience that is shared equally throughout the world: the desire to be loved, to be accepted as you are and to be happy.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 28th, 2015.