Q and A

Akbar Ahmed and Journey into America

An eminent Islamic diplomat and scholar visits the Islands and uncovers some surprises--for him and for us.

Akbar Ahmed and Journey into America / Akbar Ahmed, a former diplomat whose scholarly work focuses on questions of Islamic identity in the Arab world and in the West, visited Honolulu last week with a research team in search of the Muslim experience in Hawai’i. Ahmed, whose previous project led to the best-selling Journey into Islam, is visiting 30 American cities, and he spoke with Honolulu Weekly last week about what led him to the Islands, and what he found.

Can you tell me a little bit about the project?

Journey into America is a sabbatical I’ve taken for a year. I’m chair of Islamic studies at American University and at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. I’ve taken a year with my American team. We’re traveling to 30 cities right across the United States, and we’re looking at American identity through the lens of the Muslim experience. This is what brings us to Hawai’i. On the surface you’d think, well–and this is what we thought when we began planning–well, this will be interesting, but I’m sure there won’t be any Muslims, it’ll challenge our whole thesis. But we’ve come here, and we are amazed to see that in this wonderful society of yours, with all this rich diversity of human civilizations–the Japanese and Chinese, the white settlers, Europeans, and then Native Hawaiians themselves–here you have, in the midst of it all, a thriving Muslim community.


See, you don’t know this.

No, I honestly don’t, and I work at a newspaper! This is why we’re glad you’re here.

[laughter] There may be over 1,000, which is a big number. There is a mosque here, it’s been thriving for decades. There’s a community of scholars, professors, businessmen. The leader of the mosque is a successful hotelier from Morrocco…it’s a fascinating community. And also we’ve been talking to people on campus, including Native Hawaiians, and we were very impressed–remember, my team is entirely American–and we were really impressed by the sense of the sacred [in Native Hawaiian culture]. I was very moved by the way everything is holistic, the earth, the sky, the water and how they relate to us as human beings…it’s beautiful, and I really hope the whole world picks up this philosophy. And it allows the people of Hawai’i–the original native people–a sense of tranquility in the sense of so much change and turmoil in our world.

Had you had any previous exposure to Hawaiian culture?

I came to the East-West Center some years back. I was there two days ago, and that was the sort of regular professor-on-tour kind of lecture. But then we went out to talk to the communities, and that’s what we’re really doing. It allows us to build up a very interesting picture [of] the debate within the Muslim community about how to react to events after 9/11, the different kinds of interfaith dialogue, and that’s what we’re seeing here in Hawai’i. We are so glad to find that in this paradise on Earth.

We have a very strong mythology of diversity and tolerance in Hawai’i, and a powerful faith in it. Is that something Muslims in Hawai’i feel a part of, or do they feel outside of it?

They feel very much a part of it. I’ll tell you something fascinating. Last night, we spent Thanksgiving with some of the Muslim community. And we had many different nationalities [of Muslims present]. I was very moved at how deeply involved in Thanksgiving [Muslims were]. They really felt that “this is an American holiday, and American festival, and that we all participate because Hawai’i has been wonderful to us, and we feel very successful.” And they compared it, many of them, to the conditions back home. Some from Bangladesh, some from Pakistan. And they even had turkey! Along with the curry and the traditional dishes, they had a turkey that had made it into this Muslim home.

Is there anything distinctive or distinguishing about the Muslim community in Hawai’i as opposed to Muslim Americans elsewhere?

It’s an interesting question. We’ve been talking about this and we think that the same debate is taking place in the Muslim community throughout the United States. Whether to begin the process of interfaith dialogue, how do you maintain your integrity [as Muslims] and yet interact with the larger community, where are the boundaries…all of this is taking place across the U.S., and here in Hawai’i. Now Hawai’i is different, because you do have this rich, rich diversity, and all these different cultures at least seem to live at such ease with each other.

What do non-Muslims need to know about the Muslim community?

I think non-Muslims have been very condidtioned–and by the way even here, some people we talked to did not know there were Muslims in Hawai’i, had not met any, and they had a very negative idea of Muslims from the media. All I ask is that non-Muslims who do not know any Muslims should read a book and be better informed and not completely trust the mainstream media. Yes, the news is very grim from the Muslim world, but it’s equally grim from other parts of the world. It’s not just the Muslim world.

Ahmed and his Journey into America team are maintaining a blog about the project at [journeyintoamerica.wordpress.com]