Upholding America’s pluralist traditions

Published: October 27, 2015
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The writer is a senior at American University, Washington, DC, studying International Studies with a focus on Peace and Conflict-Resolution strategies in the Middle East and North Africa

The writer is a senior at American University, Washington, DC, studying International Studies with a focus on Peace and Conflict-Resolution strategies in the Middle East and North Africa

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Reader Comments (12)

  • Sparrow
    Oct 27, 2015 - 10:08PM

    In the spirit of appropriate disclosure, please note that Brianna Curran is Akbar Ahmed’s research assistant at American University (Washington, DC). In other words, she works for him. Recommend

  • A Pakistani
    Oct 28, 2015 - 12:40AM

    What a preposterous piece of promotional stint. ET you should know better than to publish this.Recommend

  • Jahanzaib Shoukat
    Oct 28, 2015 - 4:28AM

    The very ideals portrayed by Americans also demand compassion from other side of fence, Muslims should also ostracize those who perversed its glory message by employing terrorist acts.Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Oct 28, 2015 - 5:16AM

    A well written and articulated article by the senior Brianna Curran! This is not the time for an American to tell us about the ideals of America nor of the Islamophobia in the land of opportunty, or the difference within the three Ibrahiic religions, but to look seriously at the wars which he country has initited in several parts of the world, destabilising the architecture and disrupting the communal life of many. Islam is not foreign for the West minus USA, whose nstarted several crusades against muslim countries until they were routed and conquered by the Ottomans. Fact is also that within the European Union, there has been a great swing towards the right in recent years upto 30 % in some, but also the acceptance of syrian refugees in Germany and Sweden as well, thereby signalling to the world of the European compassion and solidarity with the war victims irrespective of their faith.
    The fact that the current afro american President of the USA is a muslim, the polemic statements made by Bin Carsen, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” stated presidential candidate Ben Carson, is nothing more than the denial by the Gentleman.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • IndianDude
    Oct 28, 2015 - 6:23AM

    The millennial is the most clueless generations that the USA has had since WW-I.Recommend

  • vasan
    Oct 28, 2015 - 7:19AM

    Sparrow : This puts the whole article in the right perspective.Recommend

  • Ahmed
    Oct 28, 2015 - 8:52AM

    Do not try to make america another europe by making these people enter from their pure land…….Recommend

  • Parvez
    Oct 28, 2015 - 2:51PM

    That came across as less of substance and more of sycophancy. There are many in the ‘ west ‘ ( especially in America ) who have latched on to the new fad ‘ interfaith dialogue ‘ ( dialogue without end ), keeps the well heeled and retired busy …. and this is something akin to ‘ war on terror ‘ ( war without end ) keeps many others busy. Recommend

  • Iron hand
    Oct 28, 2015 - 9:00PM

    So puzzling that the millions die hard Islamists and their sympathizers worldwide who embrace religious violence, intolerance and hatred seem to universally misconstrue the obvious message of peace, tolerance and love that is so clear to young Ms. Curran as to be beyond debate. Perhaps if we send her on a tour of the Islamic State, Gaza, Afghanistan, Pakistan’s tribal areas, Somalia and Nigeria, she can set everyone straight by explaining their obvious misinterpretation of the faith. Recommend

  • Naeem Khan
    Oct 28, 2015 - 9:16PM

    “It is diversity that makes America beautiful”. Unfortunately the fault also lies with some of those Muslims who has settled in the US but failed to assimilate in the society. As far as Carson and Trump are concerned, they are hypocrites. I would compare Carson and justice Thomas in the same league because both of them got their education on “affirmative action” and yet they oppose the same for other minorities including Muslims. Trump is not taken seriously although he leads in Iowa and other states in Republican polls but the fact is he is promising stars and using Muslims as a whipping boy but in reality he is a bigot and hypocrite and eventually the people will see it. I ask you who lit the fires in Iraq, Libya and Syria, although Europeans were abetting it, they are are ones who are facing the consequences and bearing the brunt of refugees. The main country or the culprit is accepting merely 10,000 to 100,000 refugees and taking forever to process them, the excuse is that our security comes first and these migrant which I will call them refugees must be thoroughly whetted before entering our county. You neglected to bring to the attention that the Jewish lobby also aligning itself with the evangelical religious right to bash Muslims. Some how it comes to mind that Americans always had some one to bash, it was communists for decades and now the Muslims. It is ironic that the 9/11 hijackers were mostly Saudi Arabian but yet we have close relations with them and support their agendas and foreign policies which are compatible to our policies in the oil rich Middle East regardless what it is doing to the other Muslim countries and it’s population. One should recognize that it is the hegemonic foreign policy of the United States regardless who is president and of which party which is crux of the problem in the Islamic world. I do appreciate your sentiments and efforts to make others to understand the Islamic values, majority of Muslims around the world are peaceful people and are not apt to convert the Christian around the world to Islam by violence. Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Oct 29, 2015 - 6:52PM

    @Naeem Khan:

    Unfortunately the fault also lies with some of those Muslims who has settled in the US but failed to assimilate in the society.

    You probably meant integration and not assimilation per se. Besides none of the sept.11 were saudis.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Bill Shafer
    Oct 30, 2015 - 3:15AM

    Great piece by a future leader in the field of international relations. Where can I read more of Brianna’s work?Recommend

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