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A Journey to Study Muslims in America

School of International Service professor Akbar Ahmed (center) with his student travelers.

School of International Service professor Akbar Ahmed (center) with his student travelers.

Akbar Ahmed, renowned anthropologist and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies in American University’s School of International Service, is taking a one-year research sabbatical to study Muslims in America and the attitudes and perceptions of Americans regarding their Muslim neighbors.  The cross-country ethnographic study will take Ahmed and his team of five young Americans to more than 30 American towns and cities between September 2008 and summer 2009.

Throughout the trip, team members will be posting their thoughts as well as photos and videos from their experience to their blog, Journey into America.

Ahmed, who traveled throughout the Muslim world with four young Americans while writing Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, will be joined by three members from that group and two newcomers as he travels through America.  The trip will include meetings with religious leaders of all denominations, in-depth interviews with Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors, and interfaith dialogues at leading universities across the country.  From a mosque in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—the oldest existing mosque in the United states—to the bright lights of Las Vegas, Ahmed and his students will visit religious centers, community centers, and schools in small-town, rural America and big cities.

He will set out to explore the Muslim community, but also to rediscover American identity. With his team, he will examine culture, society, and politics, making comparisons with other commentators like Alexis De Tocqueville.

“America has been so generous to me,” said Ahmed. “This is one way to pay my tribute to the country that I have come to know and love, a land shaped by its great founding fathers—Washington, Jefferson ,and Franklin.”

Following the trip, the results of in-depth interviews, questionnaires, and observations will be compiled and analyzed for a new book, Journey into America.

Ahmed’s study has received widespread support from politicians, think tanks, religious leaders, and academics. The University of Maryland, the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, and The Brookings Institution, publisher of Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization and sponsor of the earlier project, are supporting Ahmed’s research. U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) have also endorsed the project.

“I believe that this study proposal contains the promise of another groundbreaking piece of scholarship,” said Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to the United States Congress.  “In order to have a peaceful Muslim world and a secure United States, we need to stop groping in the dark with respect to Muslim-Western relations and begin to form policy on the basis of evidence and research.  This is exactly the approach [Ahmed is] proposing and it is exactly the approach used in Journey into Islam."

Ahmed is the former high commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain and has advised Prince Charles and met with President George W. Bush on Islam.  According to the BBC, he is considered “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam.”  Ahmed has written more than 30 books and is regularly interviewed on CNN, CBC, and the BBC and has appeared several times on the Oprah Winfrey Show and Nightline.  In 2006, he won the Purpose Prize Award with Judea Pearl—father of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl—for their work on interfaith dialogue. Ahmed's play Noor  was recently performed at the Washington Hebrew Congregation and his new play, The Trial of Dara Shikoh, will be performed in June at George Washington University.