From Martin Kramer, “Jihad 101,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2002, pp. 87-95. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.
On October 5, Oprah Winfrey devoted her television show to Islam. The program claims to have more than twenty million viewers, who got to hear Queen Rania of Jordan and Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington reassure them about the peaceful nature of Islam.
But the show was also the big American debut of Akbar S. Ahmed, Pakistani anthropologist and the new Ibn Khaldun Professor of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington. True, it was not the most edifying exchange. Oprah: “How in the name of Islam does something as horrifying as what happened on September 11 happen?” Ahmed: “That’s a very difficult question you ask, Oprah, and a very complex question, but an important question. There is obviously something driving them.” Ahmed left it at that, except to say that it was “not Islam, because Islam clearly says that the killing of one innocent life is like killing all of humanity. It is just not allowed in Islam.”16 Following Ahmed’s appearance, his book Islam Today skyrocketed to the top forty in Amazon’s rankings.
The New York Times later misspelled his name (“Okbar”), but they’ll get it right eventually, because Akbar Ahmed is the Muslim media maven. During a decade in Britain (Selwyn College, Cambridge), he became the great talking head of Islam. BBC television and radio adored him (he narrated a six-part documentary for the BBC, Living Islam). On the eve of the Kuwait war, he gave a private lecture to Princess Diana at the Royal Anthropological Institute. (“I’m not Diana’s guru, says top academic,” screamed one tabloid.) “I was in danger of becoming the instant expert, the media guru, Mr. Know-All,” he acknowledged. 17
Twenty years ago, Ahmed wrote with authority about the Pashtun tribes of northern Pakistan. A decade ago, he wrote with some passion, but still with authority, about contemporary trends in Islam, and about Jinnah, founder of Pakistan. He now writes only with passion, and a large dollop of hubris, about America.
Some examples: America “seems within the short span of a few years to have collapsed.” It is a place where “society itself is threatened as never before in history.” The O.J. Simpson trial was “symptomatic of imperial decay. … We are plunging into an era of uncertainty and O.J. confirms it for us.”18 The country’s mass media “have achieved what American political might could not: the attainment for America of world domination. Hollywood had succeeded where the Pentagon had failed.”19 (One wonders why al-Qa‘ida bothered to fly an airliner into the Pentagon. Perhaps the victory in Afghanistan is just a special effect.)
But this most recent observation, on the American reaction to September 11, tops them all: “Commentators associated Muslims with the attacks from the moment the news broke … If a Peruvian or a Japanese cult had stepped forward and claimed that they had organized the attacks, they would not have been believed. In the public mind, Islam was to blame.”20
As for the first part, it is simply untrue: commentators showed impeccable restraint in not jumping to conclusions. As for the last part, it is also untrue: the public did not blame Islam per se. And what can one say about the absurd part in the middle? While Professor Ahmed was punting on the Cam back in 1993, an earlier group of terrorists tried to blow up the World Trade Center, and they were not members of a Peruvian or Japanese cult. It is always astonishing when Muslims, who recall every grievance going back to the battle of Poitiers, rebuke Americans for having any memory at all.
Americans do have memories, but they also give newcomers the benefit of the doubt. There is no reason not to extend the same courtesy to Ahmed. He left Britain (where he served briefly as Pakistan’s ambassador) under a cloud of controversy. But Pakistan has not always been fair to its great men, and Ahmed may be one of them. In that spirit, it would be fitting for Ahmed to return the same courtesy to a country that has given him a very big break. “American University is ideally placed,” he has said. “Perhaps I can help clarify for policy makers what the pitfalls, the dangers [are], what the landscape is like.”21 That sounds useful and promising—providing the new star practices a bit more caution in interpreting the complex landscape of America.
Welcome to Washington, Professor Ahmed. Break a leg.
16 At http://www.oprah.com/tows/pastshows/tows_past_20011005_c.jhtml.
17 Akbar S. Ahmed, Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise (London: Routledge, 1992), p. viii.
18 Akbar S. Ahmed, “Where the Normal American Meets the Muslim Cleric,” New Perspectives Quarterly, Spring 1995, at http://www.npq.org/issues/v122/p13.html.
19 Ahmed, Postmodernism and Islam, p. 241.
20 Akbar Ahmed, “I’ve spent my life trying to repair the image of Islam. Has it all been in vain?” The Independent (London), Sept. 20, 2001.
21 Sally Acharya, “‘Ambassador for Islam’: Akbar S. Ahmed Works to Connect Two Worlds,” American Weekly, Oct. 2, 2001, at http://veracity.univpubs.american.edu/weeklypast/100201/story_6.html.