Visiting scholar Dr. Akbar Ahmed gave the keynote address at the 14th-annual Eid Dinner, focusing on the Islamic world and discussing problems in contemporary Muslim societies.
Speaking to more than 300 students and community members crowded into the sold-out Saturday night event, Ahmed said that there is a prevalent sentiment of being under siege. This sentiment provokes anger and irrational actions, he said, leading to a downward spiral in international relations.
The theme of the dinner, sponsored by the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and co-funded by the Student Government Finance Committee, was "Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World." Ahmed, the chair of Islamic Studies at American University, has served as visiting professor at Harvard, Cambridge, and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. Ahmed has also held several posts of importance in his native Pakistan.
In his speech, Ahmed said that societies including those of America, Israel, and India feel threatened. "The world is at a dangerous moment in history," he said.
Ahmed spent the evening touching on various reasons why Muslim societies have plunged into states of despair: rapid demographic changes, a lack of scholarship and literacy, and the failure of the world community to address Muslim crises around the world.
According to Ahmed, demographics in the Muslim world are changing quickly. He said Muslim nations are now almost completely urbanized, and he recalled the uncontrollable growth that his native Karachi has experienced in the last 50 yearsfrom both high birth rates and migration.
Other dangerous demographic trends Ahmed cited include an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and a quickly growing youth population.
Ahmed also noted the weak state of academia in the Muslim world. He said that while Islam has historically propagated knowledge, the current Islamic world has restricted, humiliated, driven out, and executed its scholars. This void has been filled by dangerous elements, such as secret police, that cocoon Muslim leaders and distance them from their constituents. He added that these leaders are mediocre at best and have failed their countries.
The Muslim world has been further demoralized because of the failure of the international community to resolve several bitter disputes across the world, Ahmed said, citing the ongoing conflicts in Palestine, Chechnya, and Kashmir.
A social scientist, Ahmed said that because of these various reasons, Islamic societies have been re-shaped. They have cast off a traditional, cohesive sense of honor for an exaggerated and excessive hyper-honor. This metamorphosis has led to a dangerous environment of intolerance, encouraging acts of violence.
Ahmed was optimistic for the future, however, and he advocated relatively simple remedies: researching other cultures, creating dialogue, and making friendships to improve strained relationships in the Muslim world. He expressed shock that many Muslims living in America are unfamiliar with the repertoire of the Founding Fathers and have never visited a church or synagogue.
"We must encourage the rediscovery of the fundamental principles in all of the world's great faiths," he said.
He also commented on the rewards of dialogue, referring to his own dialogues with Judea Pearl, the father of the slain journalist Daniel Pearl. Ahmed said these acts encourage the rediscovery of the fundamental principles in all of the world's great faiths.
Omer M. Mozaffar, a Ph.D. student in Near-Eastern Languages and Civilizations who is familiar with Ahmed's work, called him one of the few Islamic scholars whose opinions are seriously considered by the media and the political elite. He felt that Ahmed, an anthropologist, sees world affairs with a critical, scholarly eye as opposed to viewing it with the eyes of a Muslim apologist.
Ahmed called the University of Chicago one of the premier universities in America, and he said he chose to speak here because of the caliber of the students and faculty. "Students at Chicago are very involved in the global debate and understand the issues," he said.
Many attendees, such as David Currie, a first-year in the College, chose to attend the dinner to brush up on their knowledge of Islam.
Response to Ahmed's speech was strongly positive. Mark Hopkins, a second-year in the College, said he loved the speech and the call for dialogue. "Once you get to know people, there shouldn't be any hatred or misunderstanding," he said.