There are two sides to every story, from the juvenile to the catastrophic. The same goes for both the rise of Islamophobia and the spread of the Islamic State group, Akbar Ahmed said.
Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, spoke Wednesday from the Hall of Philosophy podium, delivering his Interfaith Lecture titled “Islam, ISIS, and Violence in Europe: What Should America Be Doing?”
Despite the post-Holocaust rhetoric of “never again,” history is repeating itself in Europe today, he said.
“In the last century, we said ‘never again,’ ” Ahmed said. “We were so horrified with what we saw in the Second World War and the Holocaust that we said we will never permit this hatred again, and yet I’m coming from Europe where, once again, we are seeing the ugly face of anti-Semitism, we are seeing the face of Islamophobia — shops being attacked, Jewish museums being attacked, schools being attacked.”
The cause of the lack of progress, Ahmed said, is a deficiency in understanding and dialogues between different religions, ethnicities and cultures. Between Muslims, Jews and Christians, there’s a tendency to generalize the entire group as hostile, thus preventing peaceful or meaningful relations, he said.
As an example, Ahmed shared a story from his world tour of Islam when he addressed the Pakistani senate. While he was there, he received a question from a senator — known to sympathize with the Taliban — about America’s hateful sentiments to Islam.
“Can you explain to me why Americans hate us?” Ahmed said, relaying the senator’s words. “Why are they out to destroy Islam? Why do they want to attack us and exterminate us?”
No matter how strenuous any two parties might disagree, the most important thing is to maintain a culture of respect so that an understanding can be reached, Ahmed said.
“We must talk to each other with respect,” Ahmed said, referring to Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideology. “We may not agree with one another, but we must not give up our own moral high ground.”
On the subject of the Islamic State group, Ahmed said the group’s rise to power is the result of its extremism and lack of stopping racial and religious violence throughout Europe, which led to its popularity.
“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr,” he said, quoting the Prophet Muhammad. “When you talk about ISIS, they’ve reversed this saying … because they’re killing scholars, they’re blowing up ancient relics, they have no time for scholarship and no time for respect.”
However, Europe’s ambivalence toward religious-based hatred is also to blame, he said.
“When the concentration camps were functioning, everybody looked away and pretended they did not know or could not see what was happening,” Ahmed said. “Don’t forget that. That is what happens in history when you turn away from a horrible thing you are aware is happening.”
The fact that anti-Semitic and Islamophobic behavior is occurring all over Europe creates a culture that caters to conservative extremism, he said.
However, Ahmed did offer glimmers of hope on the horizon. He cited German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visit to a community rally to promote religious tolerance, as well as similar efforts in England as examples of a step in the right direction to combat religious hatred.
In closing, Ahmed said, the solutions to the problem are putting together a discourse, treating one another with respect and building knowledge, the cornerstone of contemporary civilization. He closed with a quote from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” as a guide.
“To follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought,” he said.