Since being ensnared in religious sectarian violence at the age of 4, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed has worked to generate a greater understanding of Islam.
With both a lecture and a documentary, Ahmed, former Pakistani high commissioner to the UK and Ireland, will discuss building bridges between Islam and the West at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy. His lecture, titled “Being Muslim Today: Building Bridges in an Age of Uncertainty,” will touch on his work in government and academia as part of Week Four’s interfaith theme, “Religion and Statecraft Today: The Soft Power of Global Peacemaking.”
“When you begin the process of dialogue and discussion, then there are good chances to build bridges,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed, who is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, will also present a documentary that is based on the last of four studies on the relationship between the West and the world of Islam after 9/11. The film, “Journey into Europe,” focuses on Islam’s role throughout Europe and features major religious leaders and scholars.
Parts of the film were shown last time Ahmed was at Chautauqua Institution two years ago.The finished product will be screened at 3:30 p.m. in the Hall of Christ immediately following his lecture. Ahmed said his documentaries take a scholarly approach and simply seek to collect information and learn from other people.
“They are the only way to build bridges because they do not take a position of ‘I am right and you are wrong,’ ” Ahmed said.
Ahmed said he first became interested in promoting compassion when he found himself in the midst of chaos and violence in 1947, after the division of India and Pakistan. At the age of 4, Ahmed didn’t understand why Sikhs and Muslims were killing each other, but he said he understood that there was great madness all around him. His family fled to Pakistan, and they luckily avoided the massacres that were happening to those leaving both new countries.
“My mother said, ‘No, we won’t take this train, we’ll take the next one.’ And for some reason my father said ‘OK,’ ” Ahmed explained. “And that train was completely wiped out, everyone was killed.”
After a turbulent childhood, Ahmed said he felt the need to reach out and promote compassion and understanding. He worked in Pakistani diplomacy, where he said he did some of his most important work as commissioner in Baluchistan and political agent in the Tribal Areas. As a scholar, though, Ahmed has also been able to influence the civic arena, for which he was awarded the government of Pakistan’s Star of Excellence for academic distinction.
One of Ahmed’s most memorable experiences, he said, was a series of public conversations he had with Judea Pearl, the father of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was killed by Pakistani terrorists after 9/11. Pearl had reached out to Ahmed and said he wanted to promote understanding among the Abrahamic faiths in an effort to funnel his anger productively.
Although Ahmed said he was uncomfortable to speak publicly as a Muslim after 9/11, he and Pearl billed themselves as just two grandfathers having a respectful conversation, and the resulting speaking tour was a great success. Ahmed said this was one of the experiences that taught him the three steps to better relationships — dialogue, true understanding and genuine friendship — which he achieved with Pearl.
Ultimately, though, Ahmed’s best advice for employing soft power is to respect and listen to the other party. As commissioner of the tribal areas of Pakistan, he said he had to bring soldiers as part of his team, but he never used them. Instead, Ahmed asked the locals what they needed from him and he negotiated from there.
“People may be poor, people may not be educated like us, but … if you show them respect and dignity, they will show you respect and dignity in return,” Ahmed said.