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Interfaith Dialogue is Central to Mutual Understanding

(Washington, DC--February 9, 2004) The clash of civilization is not inevitable, said Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University. According to Ahmed, meaningful interfaith dialogue between Eastern and Western faiths is a central component in the process of achieving mutual understanding.

Ahmed, a distinguished Pakistani-born anthropologist, writer and filmmaker, told a briefing audience at RFE/RL's Washington office that globalization has forced changes on traditional and tribal societies, which have confused and threatened people and made them vulnerable to simplistic religious appeals. Additionally, Muslims feel that the Western media's apparent misrepresentation of Islam fosters an increase of anti-Western views within their community.

Ahmed said that Muslim societies are going through a major crisis around the world, due to the actions of an Islamic radical minority and ignorance about their culture in the Western world. For example, a poll cited by Ahmed showed that 80 percent of Americans have little knowledge or hostile feelings toward Islam. Furthermore, Ahmed believes that key components of Islam have been misrepresented by, and the reputation of the entire culture tarnished by, the actions of a few Islamic fundamentalists.

Ahmed noted that compassion symbolizes Islam's spirit, as demonstrated in the Koran by two of the most important names used to describe Islam, "Raham" and "Rahim" (compassion and mercy). The second most used word in the Koran--"scholarship"--exemplifies Islam's fundamental openness to change and democracy, according to Ahmed who added that Islamic societies have experimented with modern forms of democracy for centuries and look up to the U.S. as a model for universal liberty and freedom.

Ahmed suggested that Western ignorance of Islam can be reduced by encouraging Westerners to read about and understand the basic facts of Islam, form friendships with Muslims and become involved in interfaith dialogue opportunities. He argued that many basic tenets are shared by the various major religions, friendship can overcome hatred and people want to join in dialogue to begin healing. Ahmed himself has participated in open dialogues with Washington-area Jewish and Christian leaders, as well as with the father of slain "Wall Street Journal" reporter, Daniel Pearl. Ahmed stressed that, by entering into such dialogues, commonalities prove to be more important than differences and Muslims can learn that not all Americans possess negative feelings toward them.

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