You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 62: Politics, Religion, and Diplomacy in Pakistan and India

Politics, Religion, and Diplomacy in Pakistan and India

Together, Pakistan and India account for nearly a quarter of the world’s population. The two nations and their peoples also have made innumerable contributions to the world’s great religions, history, and culture. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Akbar Ahmed joins us to talk about the interfaith dynamics within and between India and Pakistan; their global roles and influence; and his own influential career as a diplomat, scholar, and author.

Ambassador Ahmed briefly explains the origins of his career, including how an experience as a child influenced both his life and his future commitment to interfaith dialogue (3:25). He discusses his three decades of experience in the Pakistani civil service and the impact of that time on his views about peace (7:10). Ahmed gives his thoughts on the state of Pakistan’s democracy and his hopes for the nation’s future (9:41).

Reflecting on his arrival in the US and Washington, DC, the week before September 11, 2001, Ahmed talks about how and why the tragic events of that day impressed upon him the importance of interfaith dialogue (11:56). He also answers the question: was there ever a moment, post-9/11, in which he was afraid to be a Muslim living in America (18:35)?

What kind of productive interfaith dialogues are happening within India (21:33)? Can interfaith dialogue help ease tensions between India and Pakistan (24:41)? Is Hindu nationalism, at its core, divorced from the actual tenets of Hinduism (26:36)—and are extremist versions of religions always similarly out of step with their own foundational beliefs? Ambassador Ahmed answers these questions while also explaining how he got his students heavily involved in the various projects he’s produced over the years (31:29). Finally, what does he think will be his legacy (34:54)?

During our “Take Five” segment, Ambassador Ahmed shares the five things he believes people and nations can do to improve interfaith relations inside and outside of their borders (29:05).

0:01      Kay Summers: Hi, this is Kay Summers, host of Big World. A couple of notes about this episode. We recorded our interview with Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, just before the arrest of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on May 9th, and just prior to India being named the world's most populous nation. Thanks. I hope you enjoy the episode.

0:22      KS: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. The partition of India in 1947 signaled the end of British rule over the area that now comprises India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It also prompted the large scale migration of Muslims in the area to the new Pakistan and Hindus to what we now know is India. These two countries are the fifth and second most populous countries in the world, respectively, and they're both democracies. They are countries in which politics and culture are dominated by their predominant religions. Religions, which couldn't be more different from each other.

1:11      KS: They're also nuclear powers who haven't always seen eye to eye on many things. So today, we're talking about Pakistan and India and interfaith dialogue and politics and the influential career of one man who knows a lot about all of this.

1:28      KS: I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed. Ambassador Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, a distinguished professor here at the School of International Service, and a global fellow of the Wilson Center. Akbar's career has included more highlights than I could possibly list, but here are just a few: He was the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East East and Islamic studies at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis; and the Iqbal Fellow, or Chair of Pakistan Studies, at the University of Cambridge.

1:59      KS: He dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, including Waziristan, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. Akbar's most recent book Journey Into Europe is the fourth book in a quartet of studies examining relations between the West and Islamic world. The first three books in the quartet were Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, and the Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam. Prior to these books, Akbar's projects included the Jinnah Quartet, which included a film, a documentary, a graphic novel, and a biographical study; and Living Islam, a six-part BBC TV series and accompanying book of the same name.

2:49      KS: He is a poet. He writes a weekly column for the Daily Times, one of Pakistan's leading newspapers, and he serves on several advisory boards and councils dedicated to interfaith dialogue and understanding. He is a busy, busy man, and I'm thrilled that he's agreed to speak with me today.

3:05      KS: Ambassador Ahmed, thank you for joining Big World.

3:08      Akbar Ahmed: Kay, thank you so much for that very warm introduction. It's quite overwhelming. Thank you so much, Kay.

3:15      KS: Ambassador, you spent over 30 years in the civil service in Pakistan. Just briefly, what positions did you hold and how did your service career develop through these positions?

3:25      AA: I had, Kay, three tracks in my career. There was my postings in the field as head of the administration. I've been commissioner for three divisions in Balochistan. I was head of the South Waziristan Agency, which was one of the most famous agencies of all of British India and South Asia. Very famous. Famous because of the tribes who lived there. And the second track was my academic career. Even then, I was constantly interacting with universities. I was one of the very few Pakistanis to be invited to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. So great honor. But that kept me on the second track, which is the academic.

4:04      AA: And the third, of course was my own writing, my interaction, particularly that writing, which led me to my interfaith in interest. And that interest also goes back to my earliest memories because in 1947, when India and Pakistan were divided, I was in a train, I found myself in a train with my parents coming from Delhi through the killing fields of the Punjab to Karachi. Now, if you know the map of North India, that train journey takes you literally through the Punjab. And the Punjab was in absolute flames. It was madness. Everyone was killing everyone. There's complete madness.

4:43      AA: And that, in fact, I would say Kay, was the first time as a child that I became aware of so much hatred around. And I, as a child was asking, why are people killing each other? Simply because you belong to one religion or another religion, one race or another race, or one caste or another caste. And that throughout my life, that acted as a catalyst to try to understand other people and to build bridges. And remember the region we are talking about, you introduced India and Pakistan. This is one of the most extraordinary regions of the world. Now, you may feel that I'm just being ethnocentric or chauvinist, but this is the place which has produced some of the world's greatest religions.

5:26      AA: We, of course, equate the great religions with the Middle East-- Judaism, Christianity, Islam, they come out of the Middle East. But think of it, South Asia has produced Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism. These are world religions, and they come out of South Asia. It's a remarkable place. And it's produced some extraordinary figures in history, rulers, role models, icons, giants. And the tragedy, of course, in 1947 was this complete implosion where they were just slaughtering each other on the basis of which religion you belong to. So a lot to be thinking about, particularly for South Asia. And remember as you in your introduction said, they're both nuclear, there's a lot of heat, lot of exchanges of barbs and tirades against each other. So there will be, I'm sure, people on both sides quite happy to press the button.

6:22      AA: And you're dealing with a population that together is one-fourth of humanity. It's not a marginal population. It's very much part of the global community. And if anything happens there, they'll just suck in the rest of the planet. So while we are focused on Ukraine and Putin and Russia and US and China and so on, this problem is simmering and needs to be heeded. And I'm glad we are discussing it.

6:49      KS: You mentioned being on the train and seeing the fires, seeing the violence, and that was as a child. And then you did move into the civil service as an adult. How do you think that your experiences in the Pakistani civil service impacted your views of peace and your future work?

7:10      AA: It taught me so many things, Kay, because we were trained in the old Civil Service Academy in Lahore, which was a very grand building, grand structure from the old British days. And a lot of Pakistani senior civil servants belonging to my service, which was the Central Superior Services, just CSS. So just the title should give it away, that these people still thought that they were very superior because this is coming straight from the British. And within this, there was a Carter of the CSP, the civil service of Pakistan. And I was selected for that on the basis of exams. Very competitive. So at the end of it, there are 5,000 students who sat in the I-SAT, and then finally, I was part of the group taken into the CSP. But they really were given a kind of sense that they were the descendants from heaven and they were superior to people. And therefore there was a kind of gap that grew between them and the people were that they were supposed to administer.

8:10      AA: So, the first thing I learned was that some of the learning I was getting was not suitable to the people I was dealing with. And that sometimes a kind word, a compassionate view of people, understanding people and their problems would help much better with administration than the strict rules and regulations which we were actually told to administer. So that's one of the first lessons I learned. I also learned that it was very important to understand people, to read their history, their culture, their background, their family background, where they come from.

8:43      AA: And thirdly, it was critical that without peace you could not have any development. If you don't have peace in a district, you will have law and order problems, you cannot have economic development. And very often people today running these countries reverse this formula. They want economic development and they don't care so much about peace and compassion and law and order and the mingling of the communities. They're putting the horse behind the cart. The cart should be behind the horse. So, they're reversing that process and of course, as you know, that doesn't work.

9:20      KS: Looking just at Pakistan for a moment, former Prime Minister Imran Khan calls for snap elections. I know when you look at Pakistan, you do so with a longer and a deeper perspective than most people and also with I'm sure a lot of affection. What are your thoughts on the state of Pakistan's democracy and what are your hopes for Pakistan's future?

9:41      AA: That's a difficult question because when I look at Pakistan, and you're right, I do feel heartbroken, because in the sixties, I still remember a visit by the president of Pakistan to the United States where he was honored with his family. My wife is the niece of the person who accompanied the president. So, she was in the delegation that went and had dinner with President Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy.

10:06      KS: Oh wow.

10:07      AA: I remember that high respect and regard that people had for Pakistan. And then I look at the condition today, where there's bitterness and there's abuse on both sides. People are just abusing each other. There's accusations. People are disappearing. People are being taken off to dark corners of this country and being tortured and so on. I really feel very sad that what have they done to Pakistan? They've literally destroyed the structure. I fear that unless they pull back from the brink, they may go over. So, it's very important that the rulers, the administrators of Pakistan, the politicians should sit down, decide on a date and have elections, and let the people decide.

10:47      AA: Ultimately, democracy must prevail. You may like the elected representatives, you may not like them, but that's what people want and you have to respect that. It's like the United States. You have a sitting president right now and he's decided to run again, President Biden, and the poll results are not all that encouraging. But that's democracy. President Trump was sent out and there was a lot of controversy around him, but he may be ready to run and come back. But this is all part of the process. That is what Pakistan needs, if Pakistan has to stay, and I pray it does, firmly on the democratic path.

11:25      KS: Akbar, in your work as an ambassador and a scholar, you focus on interfaith dialogue and understanding. What made you believe that this was such an important topic at first? I know you mentioned that scene on the train and seeing that violence and wondering about why people would hurt and kill each other over religion or ethnicity. As an adult, what first made you believe that this was an important topic that could help, and what are some of the highlights of your interfaith experiences?

11:56      AA: Well, Kay, think of it. I arrived in Washington. I'd never lived in Washington. So, I'm a total stranger. I joined American University and one week later, I'm in my first class and you had these rather bored-looking students looking at me and saying, "Who is this guy? Why am I wasting my time?" When suddenly, the class starts disintegrating and someone comes up to me and says, "There's a strike in New York," and someone said, "The plane's flown into the Pentagon." That's five miles from where I was.

12:28      AA: At that moment, I began to understand that all the experiences I had had in my life until that time had to be put to use in whatever way possible, in however minimum way possible, in order to try to create understanding because I knew a lot of Americans had no idea about Muslims, Islam, the history of Islam and I knew a lot of Muslims would have no understanding of American history, American culture. So, I thought that would be the most useful thing I could do as a scholar.

12:57      AA: I'm glad to say, Kay, and this is for the record, that the provost then, Cornelius Kerwin, who later became president, Dean Louis Goodman, who was the dean at the SIS, I talked to them. I said, "What should be our role as a professor?" They said, "Just go out and interact, make friends, build bridges." Very often, I did the rounds. I was at Politics and Prose, and I was speaking at Brookings and all these centers, and I would find in the audience, there's Provost Kerwin sitting in the audience or Dean Goodman sitting there.

13:28      AA: They really threw in their energies into trying to create better understanding because that was a very delicate moment for America. Remember, there was a lot of Islamophobia, a lot of questions, a lot of people saying, "Why on earth did they do this? Why do they hate us?" By they, they meant Muslims. Muslims, unfortunately at that stage, it's much better now, there weren't so many Muslims speaking in the media. So, the result was that the few who did come on would repeat like a parrot.

13:56      AA: They would just say, "Islam means peace. We love everyone." Americans would say, "You just killed 3000 innocent people, and you're repeating, 'Islam is peace.' It makes no sense." I will say this that my students, and I salute my students, in class, I was teaching the world of Islam, and they would ask questions and we discussed all this in a very rational, logical, scholarly way. I teach them the theories that were now dominating America and the world.

14:27      AA: There was the theory of the clash of civilizations. Samuel Huntington, professor at Harvard, who said that this is inevitable, this has to come, and that became a very popular thesis. I began to ask, as a scholar committed to trying to build bridges, is there an alternative to the theory? I suddenly realized, "By God, there's such prominent people on this side." You had people like Prince Charles very committed to interfaith. You had Pope Francis very committed to interfaith, just stepping out, reaching out, especially to Muslims.

15:03      AA: So, on the one side, you had the armies, as it were, a lot of people, the populations say clash of civilizations, full scale. All your wars in Iraq, the wars in Afghanistan are coming out of that philosophy. And then you had people who would be saying, "No, dialogue is important. Peace is important. Reaching out is important." As an adult, then, I was able to mobilize as much as I could into the second frame, the dialogue of civilization. But as a teacher, I would teach both.

15:32      AA: I found, Kay, that these students encouraged me enough that I came up with four major projects as a direct consequence of trying to understand and place America in the context of the world we are living in. So, these four projects led me to the belief that as adults, we cannot be neutral. We are either for the clash of civilization. So, you say, "All right, there is a clash. Let me get my gun and go and start shooting up people who don't look like me, who don't speak my language, or don't have my cultural background."

16:05      AA: And then, you have the right to think in terms of the dialogue of civilization and say, "No, I'm going to make a better world and I'm going to try to create a better world based in compassion and reason and love." That, Kay, people will be surprised to know is at the heart of Christianity. It's at the heart of Judaism. It's at the heart of Hinduism. It's at the heart of Islam. Again and again as a scholar of religion, I'm amazed at how deep the notion of love is and loving your neighbor and those who are not like you.

16:37      AA: Whether you read Confucius or Lao Tzu or Jesus or a Christian philosopher, that notion keeps coming up again and again. That has led me to my current project, which is called the mingling of the oceans. The mingling of the oceans really is about how within your own faith, being true to your faith, not compromising your faith, you're able to understand the other. You're able to reach out and say, "Look, I'm a whatever I am and I'm proud of my traditions, but I also want to understand you and reach out to you."

17:10      AA: Now, I will say this, and I'll end my answer here, that the responses have been to me incredible, because I found when we came here, I'm a new American, my family and I, Americans are very warm, very welcoming. I've had no problems at all. People have really been very kind. To give you an example, the National Cathedral had an evensong dedicated to my work as a Muslim scholar.

17:38      AA: Then of course, the Gandhi Center in Washington, it's the premier Gandhi center in the United States, they gave me... I was very honored. Srimati Kamala was the head of the center. She instituted a new Gandhi Peace Award, and she gave me the first peace award. Again, think of it, the bridges that she's building, the chasms that she's leaping across a Pakistani background, Muslim scholars getting the first Gandhi Peace Award.

18:08      KS: I wonder, when we start looking at the honors and the people who have supported you in these efforts, and said, "This is good. We're going to give you a prize, and we're going to give you this honor." But at that moment on 9/11, you didn't know that, you couldn't have been sure of that. So I guess my question is, was there a moment when you were afraid as a Muslim in America and thought, "I could keep my head down here, and things might be easier?"

18:35      AA: Kay, you're absolutely right. A lot of Muslims... I didn't think of it because you remember, I've served in Waziristan, and if you handle the Wazir and Mahsud tribes, then you can handle anything in the world. But a lot of my friends, a lot of my family were extremely concerned. And they said, "Look, if you appear constantly in the media, then a lot of Muslims are going to say, 'Oh, he's sold out. He's a sellout. He's betraying us.' You're even criticizing us."

19:04      AA: Because I was. I was criticizing Muslims. I was saying, "This is not coming out of the blue. What have you done to explain yourself to Americans? It's an open society. Italians have come here, the Irish have come here. Everyone's brought something to the table. It's like a feast. What have you brought? You are a very rich culture. Show them what you are capable of. Show them your own heritage, your own background. How many books have you produced? How many films have you done?"

19:29      AA: So again, the scene has changed a lot. Muslims are now really very active and doing a lot. But at that stage there was very little, so there was that sense of danger. I know the first big dialogue I had at the Washington Hebrew Congregation with my friend, Senior Rabbi Lustig, we became very close. I got a lot of very nasty emails and phone calls and threats, and people said some very nasty things. And they said, "How dare you embrace and shake hands with these people who are killing our people in the Middle East?" And so on.

20:02      AA: I said, "Unless you reach out and make friends, that killing will not stop. It's only going to help the killing. But what will help the killing is if you make friends and bring down the temperature." So there was always an element of tension in the background, and you never know how people respond. Someone may just lunge out at you with a knife or with a revolver, but that's part of the equation.

20:26      KS: You mentioned the Gandhi Prize, and I want to turn back for a minute to India. Rising Hindu nationalism, as you know better than I, has become a real issue in India. It has both domestic and global implications. Inside India, concerns concentrate on treatment of religious minorities including Muslims. Regionally and globally we have this combination of a Hindu nationalist government in India, and in Pakistan, a country that has never claimed to be secular at all, potentially seeing rising Islamic extremism among its own population. And as we mentioned, both of these countries are nuclear powers. At this point, it's not clear if either specifically rules out a first use policy.

21:14      KS: So I want to ask you two questions about India and Hindu nationalism. First, within India itself, do you know of any active, productive interfaith dialogues that are happening between prominent swamis and imams in India that can help?

21:33      AA: It's very important to understand and not to simplify, or not to see India simplistically and just dismiss it as a land within the grip of fanaticism. India has a very long and ancient tradition, and a very proud tradition, of inclusivity. And Mahatma Gandhi's coming out of that tradition, the tradition of ahimsa, nonviolence.

21:56      KS: Right.

21:57      AA: Shanti, peace. Kshama, forgiveness. So these are very strong Hindu concepts, and they've been in the land for centuries. Similarly with Muslims, the concept there was Sulh-i kul, which means peace with all, Sulh-i kul. These are wonderful concepts.

22:14      AA: So what you're seeing now, Kay, and I'm talking now as a sociologist, what you're seeing now in South Asia, both India and Pakistan, is a clash between these permanent universal values and these new emerging passions of nationalism and ultranationalism and ethnicity. So there are people today who are quoting Hitler, not negatively. They're saying, "If he could do this..." In fact, the exact quote is, "If he could do this to the Jews of Europe, why can't we do this to our minorities?" I'm quoting this directly from these semi-sacred books that people have there.

22:51      AA: Now how do you counter that? You counter that by the example of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, who takes the opposite view. He began his prayer meetings in the morning by reading from the Bible, from the Quran, from the Hindu holy text. So again, an opposite view, and yet within the Indian frame. So that challenge and that debate that is taking place is critical to, as you point out when you link it to the bigger picture, to global peace. Because Gandhi to win will mean that peace and compassion will have returned.

23:25      AA: It's something that only India has to resolve. People cannot do it from outside. And there're enough people, and I follow the debate, who are concerned, who are involved in this debate. So when you ask the question, I know many people who are very, very much involved in promoting understanding and promoting bridge-building.

23:42      AA: And one example I can give you is my friend Manjula Kumar, who's from Washington. She was a director at the Smithsonian Institution, and she's working with me on a new play, which is about India and Pakistan and promotes peace and harmony. So here you have an Indian, a female director, and a Pakistani background, that's me, the scriptwriter, and we've done two plays previously. Again, difficult because all the tensions are there, and yet important because it's a symbol that it can be done. We've shown it on stage where people from different parts of South Asia can come together, perform together, and produce something of some artistic value and entertainment value.

24:23      KS: Do you think that interfaith dialogue can help India and Pakistan maintain cordial relations and avoid flareups or full-on conflicts? You said a couple times how important it is and how we could be very unhappily surprised if something bad happens. But do you think interfaith dialogue can help keep it-

24:41      AA: Interfaith dialogue is the only solution because that region... See, the figures for America and Europe and so on, suggest that a lot of society today is secular. So the young generation is putting aside religion. They have the choice, they're democratic, and they grow up and they say, "Well, it's not doing it for me. I don't really care for religion." And then there's some very active new atheists who are... Professor Dawkins from Oxford and Hitchens and so on, Sam Harris, who in fact denigrate religion, mock religion, say nasty things about God and so on. So the young generation is growing up rejecting traditional religion. The figures are startling, in maybe 60-70 percent of the young generation.

25:29      AA: This is not quite the case in South Asia where people still have very high regard for religion. So they grow up in a religious culture. They may not be orthodox, they may not fully understand their faith, but they're moved by their religion. So in their own quiet way, they maintain their religious tradition. And therefore when religious leaders meet and have understanding and interfaith dialogue, it just changes the entire discussion and the chemistry. That is because rooted in South Asia are many, many examples of very strong interfaith interaction.

26:05      KS: I have one more question about Hindu nationalism before we turn to your other work. I am curious, as someone who has watched a version in this country, in the U.S., of what is called Christian nationalism, which to my eyes bears no actual resemblance to any of the tenets of Christianity as I understand them... I don't know if that parallel fits. Is Hindu nationalism really at its core similarly divorced from the actual tenets of Hinduism?

26:36      AA: Okay. You've touched upon a very important, very important issue. And this by the way, in some ways applies to all the faiths. Because I grew up in North Pakistan in a town called Abbottabad, which you'll recognize from Osama bin Laden who was hiding out there. He wasn't hiding out in my old school, but... This school was run by Catholic priests. And these fathers, we called them fathers, were really role models. They lived lives of great sacrifice. Remember, they come out from Europe for eight years at a time, eight years cycle, and they taught us completely with dedication. They were compassionate, they were understanding. They lived very simple lives. Literally worked for a pittance, and we used to as school boys, we used to say, "My God, what passion they must have for their understanding of God to live like this. Something is driving them and that's faith."

27:31      AA: So that's where faith meets theology. But you're absolutely right because now theology has been separated from politics, from passion, from violence, and you're seeing these crazy acts. So in some senses you're right. This is exactly what happened. People shot Gandhi. After all, it was Gandhi who's preaching peace on the basis of religion. And when he shot, his words are, "Rama, Rama." Rama is the noble. Rama is the great, he's the greatest Hindu God.

28:01      AA: So he's appealing to the Hindu God, who he looks up to as his iconic religious figure, even in his dying breath. And yet he's shot by someone who believes that he's on the right path in Hinduism. So this is a challenge, not just for Hinduism or for Islam. You remember 9/11, same thing happened. A lot of Muslims felt that killing innocent people was the right thing according to Islam.

28:24      AA: According to me, it is not. So this challenge and this debate is taking place across the world. And if you care about human civilization, and we should, because Christianity tells you to care, Judaism tells you, Islam tells you to care for fellow human beings, then we should be concerned.

28:47      KS: Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, it's time to take five. You, our esteemed guest, get to daydream out loud with five policies or practices you believe would change things for the better. What are five things that people and nations can do to improve interfaith relations inside and outside of their borders?

29:05      AA: Thank you. Of the five things, the first would be to educate or learn about the other. So if you are a Muslim in a Muslim majority nation, learn about Hindus or Christians, the other religion. Learn about it, read books about them and try to understand them seriously, not just something done casually. Number two, visit the house of worship. Visiting a house of worship with the head priest or the head imam would be an eye-opening experience. And will show you that in fact, people are very much like us. They're there, they worship their God, they have their good intentions, they have their rules of conduct, and that, again, helps us understand them.

29:46      AA: Number three, I would say make friends. When you make friends, you invite people for meals, you go across for meals, it changes everything because in a time of violence, you cannot harm or injure people who are friends or you cannot harm their children because you're friends. So it's very, very important. The next point is about the media and that, I don't know how to tackle that, but so much of this, I think, distorted idea of the other comes from the media. So the media is a challenge, and as we know, not only is the media pumping out fake news, as President Trump would say fake news and fake information, but it's also creating images which are fake.

30:27      AA: So it's very important that the media somehow understands the enormous responsibility of creating trust or destroying trust. So whoever's in power, whoever's ruling the country needs to work closely with the media, help educate them. And the only way you can do it to is to educate them so that they understand their responsibility and help to create a better, more harmonious society.

30:52      KS: Thank you. Ambassador, as long as I've known you, I've known that you had a group of really dedicated students around you. You've mentioned your students, but you inspire a type of dedication from your students that we don't always see. And there were a couple in here before we recorded who work with you in different ways. You've taken students across the world. Your experiences have resulted in four books and two documentaries. How are you able to get your students involved to the degree that you are? And why was it important to you that they be involved in those projects?

31:29      AA: Well, it's a great question because it's a technique I developed after 9/11, and I'm delighted to say that it worked. It's also risky. You're taking young people abroad. Anything can happen in those turbulent areas, but I'm very proud to see the response of the students. Remember these are voluntary. I'm not saying, "You must come with me. I'll give you extra marks." These students saying, "You've got this great project, we are committed, we want to come."

31:56      AA: And when I first took my students, I was doing a big project for Brookings, and we are going through to the Muslim world. And the senior people at Brookings were not happy about it. In fact, they said, "Look, we do not encourage students to go along, and why do you want them with you?" And I said, "Because they're my students. I know them. They're interested in the subject and they will bring fresh eyes so I can see things through their eyes. I'll be making notes, I'll be having interviews, but they're watching things which are even going to help me when I'm writing up. And they'll see things which I may miss."

32:29      AA: So, and that's exactly what happened. This is really me as an anthropologist. You see, to me it's critical if you under want to understand a society or community, you must work with them. You must live amongst them. And you must know different aspects. There's the housewife, there's a cook, there's the male, there's the young boy, there's the young woman. That's how you understand a society. I was told you arrive there, you talk to the retired secretaries or retired generals. Here's a list. Meet these people. I said, "I don't want to meet these people because I can read about them or what they've written. I want fresh thinking, fresh eyes. I want to go to the bazaars. I want to go to the colleges. I want to talk to the students."

33:07      AA: And that's exactly what happened. And I was very lucky also, we had these amazing young students, and you say that I inspire them. It's the other way around. They inspire me and they give me hope. Because to me, that is America. Remember these youngsters, and I know they don't like to be called kids so you have to be very sensitive. These are the youngsters who are going to be running this country in the next 10-15 years. And if they do not have access to all these great ideas, that is the purpose of a professor on campus to transfer these ideas to these youngsters. And then it's up to them. They can throw them away. They can do something with them. They can transform their lives and the lives of their country.

33:47      AA: And I really believe America is going through a phase, which is a critical phase for itself because I teach them very intensely about the founding fathers. I'm a great admirer of the founding fathers. I tell them, I say, "All right guys, tell me any other country where you have a group of people like our founding fathers who are giving us this vision of a society, not perfect, but a vision where everyone has a place." Just the declaration, it's very stirring and that stirs them.

34:16      AA: And I say, "If you lose that, you lost everything. You cannot just dominate to impress the world by sheer military might. You must have ideas and this is where the founding fathers come in." See, the greatest thing you can do to a student is to make him or her aware of their role in the world today. A lot of youngsters are very uncertain, and some of their parents may not even be very interested in guiding them in that way.

34:42      KS: Last question, do you ever have time? If you have time, do you ever think about the legacy that you want to leave with your work and your career? And if so, what is it?

34:54      AA: Okay. I think my students are my legacy. Literally, they're my legacy. Sometimes my wife, who's very keen that I start writing an autobiography. She has the idea that someone who may be interested in reading anything I'm writing or doing in terms of an autobiography, but this is an answer to myself when I think of what could it be that is a legacy, it really is my students

35:19      KS: Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, thank you for joining Big World and talking about interfaith dialogue, Pakistan and India and your own long and influential career. It's truly been a privilege to speak with you.

35:32      AA: Thank you, Kay. Thank you so much.

35:33      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service, an American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like a stretch break after a long Zoom call. Our theme music is, It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

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