DR AKBAR S AHMED
These are not normal times for a Muslim professor on a Western campus. At the beginning of each term, I calculate that students coming to my class have lived just about their entire lives in a post-9/11 environment. There is an Islamophobic atmosphere of controversy and crisis around Islam and widespread outright lies and falsehoods about the religion — “fake news.” Every act of Muslim terror only makes matters worse.
In spite of this, I find that the majority of my students are open-minded, curious, and keen to learn. Many want to go on and do good things in the world. Their optimism is infectious. I have been teaching popular courses such as Dialogue versus the Clash of Civilizations, Researching Islam, God and Globalization, and the World of Islam.
Of the many books I have put on the Recommended Reading list, which is constantly updated, I have found the five below to be the most useful in explaining our world today.
The first general book is The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism by Karen Armstrong, a leading religious scholar.
In this landmark text, Armstrong conducts a comparative and chronological study of “Protestant fundamentalism in America, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran.” She finds fundamentalism to be a flawed, yet uniquely modern, attempt at understanding the central myths of religion on the basis of empirical logic. Armstrong also finds that many fundamentalists are driven by a fear of losing meaning in a world in which science and technology are valued more highly than a connection to God, which can be deeply unsettling to many.
Our second book is The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, one of the world’s major interfaith leaders. Sacks wrote the book when he was Chief Rabbi of the UK and in the wake of 9/11. The Dignity of Difference has emerged as one of the foremost manifestos on learning how to coexist with other faiths and cultures in a globalizing world defined by the market.
Sacks opens the book with the line, “The Dignity of Difference is a plea—the most forceful I could make—for tolerance in an age of extremism,” before outlining how we must move beyond addressing the world’s challenges solely on the basis of politics and economics and begin incorporating the missing moral and religious dimension. Sacks argues that unless we utilize religion as a force for good, it will be used as a force for ill.
The third book is written by Tamara Sonn, a professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University. Her Islam: History, Religion, and Politics, one of the finest textbooks on Islam today, gives a succinct outline of the foundations of Islam, the history of the faith, and the political dynamics within Islam.
She not only discusses the core principles of Islam, but analyzes the Golden Age of Islam, the divisions found within Islam, the impacts of colonization on the Muslim world, and the Muslim world’s contemporary challenges. Sonn even goes into the impacts of the Arab Spring and other recent conflicts, with the aim of cutting through “the fog of war” in analyzing the contemporary politics of the Muslim world. Additionally, she profiles Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia to shed light into the lived experiences of the Muslim world today. And this is no dense academic text, but rather an accessible, yet sophisticated portrayal of the Muslim experience today.
Our fourth book is Age of Anger: A History of the Present written by the Indian scholar Pankaj Mishra. He has tapped into a wave of discontent and anger that is rapidly sweeping the world, from Modi’s India to Trump’s America and beyond. Seeing striking parallels to the waves of anger and violence which swept Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, Mishra argues that the same inequalities which destabilized Europe are quickly spreading across the globe through post-Cold War neoliberalism. He also explains that the destruction of traditional social structures through neoliberalism has left many individuals feeling more vulnerable and disposable.
In the midst of all this, Mishra is finding that “demagogues of all kinds … have tapped into the simmering reservoirs of cynicism, boredom and discontent.”
The last book is my own: The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam. In it I analyze, on the basis of 40 case studies of tribal societies stretching from Morocco to the Philippines, how tensions between central governments and tribal peoples living on the peripheries of states throughout the Muslim world, accentuated by the War on Terror, are destabilizing tribal communities and feeding into terrorism; how tribal codes of behavior are incorrectly viewed as Islamic in the West, fostering Islamophobia and worsening conflict; and how the common usage of the drone, the weapon of choice in the War on Terror, is both deeply inhumane and counterproductive. I show how these actions have estabiled tribal societies, Muslim states, and indeed much of the globe.
The job of the teacher is to present knowledge to the students and encourage them to think for themselves on a rational basis. I would recommend these five books to anyone seeking to understand our complicated and divided world with a view to healing it.
Prof Akbar S Ahmed is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar