Beyond Platitudes: Akbar Ahmed’s Search for Harmony

Parvez Mahmood sets the context for the eminent academic’s writings at a time when old Europe comes to terms with a rising Muslim population

Beyond Platitudes: Akbar Ahmed’s Search for Harmony
With a population of 25 million, 5% of the total population, Muslims form a large religious group in the European Union countries. According to Pew research, this figure is expected to grow, under different levels of immigration, to anywhere between 35 to 75 million –  representing 7.5 to 14% of the population in the next thirty years. Meanwhile the white population is projected to decline. The growth of Muslims is unevenly distributed in the continent. Central Europe is projected to have 15% and Eastern Europe less than 1% of their population professing the Muslim faith. The corresponding numbers in the US are about 3.5 million representing about 1% of the population

The presence of a sizeable Muslim minority in Western nations has had, unfortunately, an adverse effect on social harmony. While national leaders and thinkers are addressing this issue under their individual inclinations and biases, there are some scholars who are genuinely concerned about the deteriorating racial and communal relations and are actively involved in creating a better understanding between various religious groups in Europe and America. Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed is one such academic, who has been promoting interfaith harmony and projecting a moderate image of Islam in Europe and America. That he is a Pakistani is source of immense pride for our country.

In the last two decades, he has pursued an unrelenting struggle to portray the lives of Muslims in the US and Europe with the aim of making them acceptable as equal citizens and to allay the apprehensions of native populations

Born in Allahabad India in 1943, Dr. Akbar grew up in Karachi and served in senior administrative positions as a civil servant, including a brief stint as the country’s High Commissioner to UK. Since his retirement, he has settled in the US and has been associated with a number of prestigious Western universities and organizations. He belongs to that rare class of civil servants who, in the footsteps of colonial British administrators, were thinkers, scholars and writers. I can think of two other Pakistani luminaries in this category, i.e. Mukhtar Masood and Mustafa Zaidi. However, Dr. Akbar far exceeds them in literary achievements, having authored a large number of books and stage dramas, created many films and documentaries, and delivered countless lectures and dialogues. He has been recognized for his work in Pakistan as well as in many other countries.

In the last two decades, he has pursued an unrelenting struggle to portray the lives of Muslims in the US and Europe with the aim of making them acceptable as equal citizens and to allay the apprehensions of native populations. In the quest for credible insight into race relations in the US for his Journey into America: The challenge of Islam (Brookings Press, 2010), he crisscrossed the country in its entirety, traveling to no less than 75 cities in his year-long hectic sojourn: visiting mosques, churches, synagogues, universities, ethnic and community centers, homes and every place that could help him understand the race and religious relations in the American society. In the process, he spoke to people from a wide variety of backgrounds including the lady in Texas who maneuvered US assistance to create anti-Soviet Afghan resistance, the Ku Klux Klan leaders who desired a nation of whites-only and the Salafi Muslim in Omaha who wanted a Shariah-ruled country.

Belgium banned religious slaughtering practices, affecting Muslims among others

Dr. Akbar undertook the same kind of quest in Europe for his Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity’ (Brookings Press, 2018). Traveling from Andalusia in the south of Spain, where he was permitted to pray in the ancient Cordoba mosque, to the UK, Germany, Denmark, Sicily in Italy and Bosnia, he explored the nature of hostility towards Muslims and Islam. The purpose of his quest was aimed at bridging the gaps and filling the schisms. Few researchers are as exhaustive as Dr. Akbar has been.

Going beyond Dr. Akbar’s theme, it is essential that before Muslims migrate to a Western country in search of economic gains, they must understand the cultural, social and political values of their new homeland. They must also learn the language of their host country. Not many do that, unfortunately, because they only have their eyes on a lucrative employment or a safe haven. Very few even try to understand that the economic prosperity of Western nations is due to the social values they practice. Without social freedom and pursuit of secular sciences, there can be no economic development. It all comes in one package and one has to deal with that.

Generally, Muslims in a Western country end up in a cultural shock where they fear for the loss of their Islamic identity and practices. They conveniently overlook the fact that their vow to uphold the laws of their new land as naturalized citizens implies that their religious laws are now subservient to the national laws; at least to the degree that they come in conflict. Tragically, for most of them, the oath of citizenship is not a solemn pledge to be honoured but a mere formality to complete to entitle them to a new passport and welfare rights. They have no intention to accept the social values of their new society.

Most of the first generation emigrants, thus, continue to live a life of confused duplicity and are torn between two eternally different worlds. That in itself is one of the sources of hatred and, ultimately, violence. By any stretch of mind, it is they who have to adapt and integrate. Being used to intolerance –both experiencing and practicing it – they assign wrong meaning to the accommodation displayed by their hosts. For instance, it is a Muslim ‘victory’, and not a gracious act, if a city council allows them to build a mosque. If an office allows them time for afternoon prayers, it is not taken as generosity but a triumph.

Dr. Akbar deals with contemporary anthropological issues in an admirable manner but the burdens of history – which is given a cursory attention in his works – invariably cast a long shadow. The immigration of Muslims to Europe, at least to conservatives in these countries, evokes the ghosts of earlier attempts by the ancient and medieval Muslim Caliphates at conquering the continent. The Battle of Tours of 632 AD on the western edge of Europe, the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 on its eastern fringe, two sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683 in the heart of the continent, and conquest of Constantinople in 1453 are neither going to be forgotten nor become irrelevant as long as Islamic and Christian civilizations are living cultures. Then there is the vexing issue of Palestine and the lingering problem of Kashmir. The reasons, if not the justification, for terrorism are therefore, not hard to identify.

The above immutable facts are mentioned here to provide clarity to the question of religious harmony in Western societies. It is a call for Muslim activists in the US and Europe to propagate to the local Muslim community, through periodic meetings and web-publications, that, despite these issues, they have not migrated to spread Islam or to avenge the historical wrong doings. They have migrated for a better future for themselves. They should do just that: get integrated in the new environment, behave in honorable manner, educate their children well, take interest in their community and become respected citizens. They would also do well to notice, and emulate, that the western people, for most part, do not discuss religion because this has ceased to be an issue with them.

Dr. Akbar is a thinker who has made Pakistan proud. In fact our nation has produced only a handful of people who have made accessible and yet in-depth studies into the lives of Muslim immigrants in Western nations. His work helps in creating inter-faith understanding and facilitates integration of Muslim communities, who have been viewed with suspicion in the post 9/11 terror stricken world.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: