American Civility At Greenbrier

I wondered whether the weekend had been a dream. Was it another America, an America of civility and hospitality, from another time?

American Civility At Greenbrier

To invite a scholar named “Ahmed” to this distinguished gathering of America’s political elite was an act of vision; to charter a plane and fly a man called “Ahmed” to the gathering was an act of faith.

I made these remarks to open my talk to the Congressional Bipartisan Retreat in Greenbrier, West Virginia, on 1 March 2003. Through snow and fog, I had been flown in from the Dulles Airport when I arrived from O’ Hara in Chicago where only a few hours earlier I had given the keynote address at the annual banquet of the Averroes Academy where 500 of the city’s elite had gathered. That was mainly a Muslim audience, but my theme was the same.

My talk was called “American Values -- Islamic Values”. Vision and faith were more important than ever before to build relations between the United States and the Muslim world and prevent the growing divide between them. We were on the threshold of a war in the Middle East and new uncertainties. These were dangerous times.

In my talk, I pointed out the similarities in American and Islamic values, the differences and the way ahead. One of the suggestions was to develop Abrahamic dialogue, which would bring Jews, Christians and Muslims closer together.

It was a sophisticated audience. This after all was the cream of the American political cream. I received a warm response. There were many questions and concerns.

A few weeks earlier, Congressman Christopher Cox (Republican California), Chairman of the Policy Committee of the House majority, had written to me inviting me to the Greenbrier’s Retreat. His assistant Ms Sarah Petry, just out of Princeton, worked on the almost impossible logistics with a formidable combination of efficiency and imagination. I had to get from Chicago after dinner to Greenbrier before lunch.

Cox explained the purpose of the Retreat:

“The idea was to know each other better. This would enable people to work together better. Also, to allow us to explore the difficult issues that faces our nation. Not to tiptoe around them.”

The first gathering took place in 1997 and it is now held every two years. This year, the planners were acutely aware of the post-September 11 world. That is why they decided to give the luncheon slot to a lecture on Islam. The idea had come from Alcee Hastings (Democrat Florida). 

The Retreat is a recent initiative, Cox, my host, explained to me: “The need was to better educate ourselves on Islam. Too often, we get a distorted version in the media.” 

Cox introduced me and Mark Udall (Democrat Colorado) gave the vote of thanks – everything there was in the spirit of bipartisan cordiality. Mark recounted a story of a Muslim woman in a hijab who was harassed by a woman in his State. She complained that her son was in Kuwait for the war against Iraq and blamed her. The woman in the hijab pulled out a photograph of a young marine and said, “So is my son.”

I talked of the essential philosophy of Islam based in notions of compassion and kindness, of the reverence Jesus and Mary have in Islam and some of the challenges facing the Muslim community. 

Cox was pleased with the response to the Islam lecture, he told me. It had served its introductory purpose.

About one third of the House of Representatives of 435 came for the entire weekend on a special Amtrak train from Washington DC. They brought their spouses and children. The weekend had the air of a high-class international conference and a well organised family retreat at an exclusive club. The Secret Service and the police had sealed off Greenbrier during the Retreat.

Perhaps the air of relaxed civility was also encouraged by the absence of the media, which can become so intrusive in the lives of public figures. 

In spite of the press not being allowed, the story had leaked and was reported in the Financial Times, London (27 February 2003). It had pointed out Tom Friedman of the New York Times and myself as the speakers. I also saw our friend the respected Karen Armstrong who was much in demand to speak on Islam. 

My wife, Zeenat, my daughter Nafees and I were warmly received. Members of the House and their spouses would constantly stop us and invite us to share meals and conversation. Considering I was the only Muslim speaker on that—or any previous—occasion I never felt for a moment either alien or out of place. 

“Americans are such warm people,” said my wife again and again. “This is a side of Americans people need to see more of these days. Thank God that Osama has not been able to change everyone.” 

There could be no better location than the Greenbrier, which traces its origins to the middle of the 19th century. Well away from Washington (250 miles), and spread over 6 500 acres, it creates the atmosphere of being cut off from the real world. Little wonder that at the height of the Cold War, the United States government chose Greenbrier to construct the now famous bunkers where the government could escape to and conduct business in case of a nuclear war. 

Golf courses (there are three top quality ones), hiking, rafting and riding are available to the energetic. Greenbrier’s spa is renowned and the sulphur in the water is said to cure all kinds of ailments. American historical figures from earliest times – Robert E. Lee – to the present – Kennedy and Clinton – have come to enjoy Greenbrier.

Saturday night had to be devoted to music; this was after all an American Retreat. Bering Strait, a new pop band with a Russian background, sang haunting melodies. Members of the group had recently migrated from Russia. They were on their way to becoming superstars. Truly, the shibboleth, only in America, applies to them. 

A karaoke session allowed Congressmen to indulge in nostalgia by singing their favorite old tunes. John Denver’s, Country Road and Elvis Presley’s Don’t be Cruel were sung by America’s leaders. The younger generation sang more contemporary tunes.

Fittingly, Sunday began with an interfaith prayer service. The Gospel singers, the Edenton Community Male Chorus, sang beautifully. Congressmen read from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels.

Then, Republican Congressman Mike Pence read respectfully from the Quran. It was a thoughtful and quietly powerful reading. He then invited me to speak again about Islam. We had been at the same table for dinner the night before. Mike and his wife Karen were amiable and friendly and insisted we join them next morning for the prayer reading. A few years later Mike became Vice President of the USA. I kept my distance and made no attempt to reach out to him. Scholarship is best served at a distance from the centers of power. 

In the Islamophobic currents flowing in parts of the land, it was another remarkable act of vision and faith, a tribute to the American spirit of tolerance. Here was genuine reaching out. The House was clearly asserting its American identity based in the practice of religious pluralism. 

The entire gathering boarded the special train for Washington and 6 hours later it pulled into Union Station. It had been a fast journey. There were no stops. The atmosphere on the train was that of a friendly family club. The coach at the end had been given over to children. 

I noted on arrival that there were no trains on either side of ours. Before the passengers were allowed out, the Secret Service spent a couple of minutes securing the area. Then, we walked through the main station flanked by DC’s finest. The police were facing the crowds who they held back so that the temporary corridor that they had formed would allow us to move out quickly. 

As we got into a taxi to head for home, I realised what an extraordinary experience and privilege we had been given. I wondered whether the weekend had been a dream. Was it another America, an America of civility and hospitality, from another time? Was the “real” America here, in this city where the talk of terror levels and war kept people in a constant state of paranoia, panicking them into buying duct tape and plastic sheets one day or storing up food on another. Having glimpsed another side of America, I felt deep sorrow at the damage Osama Bin Laden had inflicted. His blow had been deadlier and darker than even he could have imagined. 

We would all, the entire world, soon be on a roller coaster led by America. The Afghan war, the Iraq war, the use of American drones to kill tribesmen on the Afghanistan – Pakistan border, the rise of China and India at the very same time commentators were writing of the decline of America and the crazy assault of Russia on Ukraine exposing its weakness. Add to that the out of control climate crisis, the arrival of a virus that will not go away, the awareness of the dangers of AI and the deadly persecution of the minority populations on every continent and you have the measure of the journey that lay ahead. 

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, School of International Service. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center Washington DC. His academic career included appointments such as Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the Iqbal Fellow and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Balochistan, Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland