In “Journey into Islam” at RealClearPolitics, Tony Blankley explains that Akbar Ahmed of American University is his friend. My own experiences with Dr. Ahmed have not been remotely as positive, as he has ignored my invitations to debate or dialogue (with the exception of one noncommittal email saying he was looking forward to “talking soon”), and has responded to my views on C-Span with evasions and irrelevancies. But in any case, he enjoys worldwide renown as a moderate leader, and so what Blankley says here is of enormous significance.
I have just finished reading a deeply disheartening book by my friend Professor Akbar Ahmed. Dr. Ahmed is the former Pakistani high commissioner to Britain and member of the faculties of Harvard, Princeton and Cambridge, current chair of Islamic Studies at American University — and is in the front ranks of what we Westerners call the moderate Muslims, who we are counting on to win the hearts and minds of the others.
His new book, “Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization,” is thus particularly heartbreaking for me. As a trained anthropologist, he took three of his students on a six-month journey around the Muslim world to investigate what Muslims are thinking.
His conclusion: Due to both misjudgments by the United States and regrettable developments in Muslim attitudes, “The poisons are spreading so rapidly that without immediate remedial action, no antidote may ever be found.” And Dr. Ahmed has always been an optimist.
He divides Muslim attitudes into three categories named after Indian Muslim cities that have historically championed them: Ajmer, Aligarh and Deoband.
Ajmer represents peaceful Sufi mysticism, Aligarth represents the instinct to modernize without corrupting Islam, Deoband represents non-fatalistic, practical, action-oriented orthodox Islam. It traces to Ibn Taymiyya, a 14th-Century thinker who lived when Islam was reeling from the Mongol invasions. He rejected Islam’s prior easy, open acceptance of non-Muslims.
In short, Dr. Ahmed is an Aligarth. As a young man he was one of new Pakistan’s best and brightest, led by Pakistan’s founding father and first president, Dr. Jinnah. They hoped to build a modern democracy, overcome tribalism and the more obscurantist aspects of Islam while still being “good Muslims.” The Deobands are the Bin Ladens and all the other Muslims we fear today.
Even one or two years ago, I think Dr. Ahmed was reasonably hopeful that his views had a fighting chance around the Islamic world. So, my jaw dropped when I got to page 192 of his new book and he described his thoughts while in Pakistan last year on his investigative journey: “The progressive and active Aligarth model had become enfeebled and in danger of being overtaken by the Deoband model … I felt like a warrior in the midst of the fray who knew the odds were against him but never quite realized that his side had already lost the war.”
He likewise reported from Indonesia — invariably characterized as practicing a more moderate form of Islam. There, too, his report was crushingly negative. Meeting with people from presidents to cab drivers, from elite professors to students from modest schools (Dr. Ahmed holds a respected place in the Muslim firmament around the globe), reports that 50 percent want Shariah law, support the Bali terrorist bombing, oppose women in politics, support stoning adulterers to death. Indonesia’s secular legal system and tolerant pluralist society is being “infiltrated by Deoband thinking … Dwindling moderates and growing extremists are a dangerous challenging development.”
Although I dissent from several of Dr. Ahmed’s characterizations of the Bush Administration, Washington policymakers and journalists should read this book because it delivers a terrible message of warning both to those who say things aren’t as bad as Bush says, and we can rely on the moderate voices of Islam — with a little assist from the West — winning; and for those who argue for aggressive American action to show our strength to the Muslims (because, in Bin Laden’s words, they follow the strong horse).
To the first group he says that the “moderate” voice is in near hopeless retreat across the Muslim world. Don’t count on them….