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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Bosnians in St. Louis: "Right Skin Color, Wrong Religion"?

We got off to a great start in our trip in St. Louis, meeting the former governor Bob Holden, current mayor Francis Slay (pictured above) and members of many different ethnic communities. St Louis has a multitude of communities, from the French Catholics who settled the area in the fur trapping days to the Jews who came in the 19th century. There is an increasing Mexican population and Italians live on “the Hill.” Then there is the predominately African-American area of East St. Louis, which exists as almost its own entity. The first question people usually ask one another in St. Louis is “what high school did you go to?” which immediately places one in a certain economic and cultural context. With all the different enclaves, we wanted to know: are people getting along? Are they talking to each other? Is there communication?

One of the most fascinating communities we visited were the Bosnians—Muslims who immigrated to the United States in the mid 1990s during the war. The Bosnians, like the Somalis we spoke to earlier in the week, were fleeing almost unimaginable suffering in their country and sought escape and solace in a new land. St. Louis has between 50,000 and 70,000 Bosnians, a substantial population. The Bosnians moved into old neighborhoods and opened businesses. They are widely credited by many in St. Louis with vastly improving areas of the city.

Unlike other Muslim groups we spoke to in St. Louis, the Bosnians have light skin which they said eased their transition to American society. Before 9/11 when Islam was largely invisible in the US the Bosnians said relations with other Americans in St. Louis were largely a matter of culture, but after the attacks a new dynamic entered the fray. As one Bosnian explained to me, the new attitude toward the Bosnians was “right skin color, wrong religion.”

Although the Bosnians said that they had been welcomed by America with open arms and loved their new country, the situation facing Islam in America was putting them on the defensive. When Imam Muhamed Hasic, the Bosnian community and spiritual leader, sought to add a tall minaret to the community center, a website arose threatening to pour pigs blood on it and sounding the alarm that the Muslims were taking over. In an instance of globalization at work the website was picked up by Hindu and Serb nationalists who jointly warned Americans of the coming Muslim threat. The hysteria drummed up by the American media regarding Islam struck many Bosnians as eerily reminiscent of the situation back home immediately before the genocide when Serb media warned that if the Muslims were not stopped they would take over. The media warned Serbs that all Christian girls would soon be wearing the headscarf, despite the fact that most Bosnian women did not wear the headscarf, according to a Bosnian man I spoke to.

Despite these challenges the Bosnians always took great pains to say how accommodating Americans had been, and how lucky they felt to be in America and to have the opportunities it afforded. In a Bosnian mosque after Friday prayers a man in his 50s told me of his belief that Americans were Muslim without knowing it because they treated the Bosnians with such compassion. The Americans, he said, had not read the hadiths where the Prophet spoke of kindness towards others, but they followed them nonetheless. So we heard different views of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in St. Louis, but in general seemed largely positive, although I’m not sure how much mixing actually goes on outside of the enclaves. I’m looking forward to seeing what the situation is like in Dearborn, Michigan, our next stop.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A visit to the "Arch" with Governor Holden

Like most nights during this month of Ramadan, last night we attended an iftaar dinner at the home of Dr. Sadiq Moyhuddin. After our meeting with the board of the World Affairs Council of St. Louis, we were welcomed by Dr. Mohyuddin, and his wife and daughter to a wonderful spread of traditional Pakistani food. This dinner, sponsored by the Interfaith Partnership of St. Louis, represented the openness and harmony that is in St. Louis between the different faiths. Muslim, Christian, Jew, Quaker, and other faiths exist easily in this quiet city, which often has the look and feel often of a small Midwest town.  

We met many important St. Louisans that night, including former governor of Missouri Bob Holden who was in office from 2001 to 2005. While at the dinner we questioned him extensively on the history and culture of Missouri and St. Louis in particular. A gracious, humble, and amiable man, who dressed casually and relaxed easily, he offered in particular to show us the famous arch in the morning and explain its significance. The next morning we agreed to pick him up at his hotel. Standing with a suit and briefcase on the corner, we stopped and he squeezed into the backseat with us, talking easily without a trace of pretension. Although it was my first time meeting a governor, former or current, I knew that this friendly informality was unusual.  

On the way he described that the famous arch symbolizes the gateway to the West. St. Louis in particular has been home to the beginning of many voyages across the West including the Lewis and Clark expedition. It represents going beyond the comfortable and into the wild unknown. St. Louis, and Missouri in particular, are trailblazers into the future. Furthermore there is a steadfast independence in St. Louis. The American spirit of independence and self-reliance is strong here. Gov. Holden shared that his father offered to give he and his brothers, on the condition that his sons not smoke or drink, one hundred dollars and one hundred acres of land when they turned twenty-one. His brother began to smoke at twenty and quit at twenty-one. 

The value placed on independence, even from one’s parents, and the bold move to strike out alone was not lost on him even in a family far different from his own—the Kennedys. The death of John F. Kennedy was tragic for all of America, but for him the loss of Bobby Kennedy was even more meaningful. He admired his compassion and tireless work for the poor, to stand up for what was right, even when he was alone. Upon his assassination, many who had looked up to him mourned the loss of a great figure. But more than that Gov. Holden mourned the loss of morality and charity in public life. This dark moment inspired him to pursue a life of public service.  

Standing with Gov. Holden under the soaring the arch, he also talked of the future in America. The arch, a symbol of innovation, courage, and the pioneering spirit, should be the model for us in the twenty-first century as well. As globalization brings new challenges and new frontiers to conquer, he argues that we must face these new challenges and prepare ourselves through education and creativity. He is also a professor at the original Webster University campus which has now expanded to over 150 campuses all over the world, including China. He recognizes that competition in the global marketplace and other cultural differences may be threatening for many Americans, but the answer is rather to be open to the unknown and learn from foreign nations in order to succeed.  

The governor has had extensive experience in experience culture shocks. From the farm where he grew up to the governor’s mansion and professor’s podium in Beijing, he has proven his savvy in intercultural communication. However, he remains the humble farm boy at heart, hat in hand, ready to face hardship or fortune with equanimity and determination.   

His spirit and the spirit of St. Louis (pun intended) has also set us up for a wonderful departure into the unknown. Our Muslim professor is now venturing into American society and Americans into their own, many who have never been west of the Mississippi. We now take our own bold journey from this Midwest town, with many cheering us on and wishing us well.

Hailey Woldt

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The next Steven Spielberg?

When I was at Needham High School in Massachusetts, I was a basketball star with ambitions of playing collegiately. When I arrived at American University in Washington, DC for a Bachelors degree, I shifted priorities and dedicated my energy to scholarly activities. Within the last year, I continued this pattern upon studying Political Science at the University of London for an MSc. Now, just days after finishing my dissertation and arriving back in the

United States, I find myself the director of a documentary. The times have certainly changed. Certainly, I have changed as well.

In London, I remained in close contact with Ambassador Ahmed. His assistant, Jonathan Hayden, notified me of ‘Journey into America’, a continental expedition to study the American identity through the eyes of Muslim Americans and their neighbors. I raised a large sum of money on my own to embark on the trip, an event that is one of the greatest accomplishments of my life thus far.

As an assistant to Ambassador Ahmed in 2007, I wrote numerous articles and attended many events in the Washington, DC community. I figured I would have a similar role on this journey, like helping out with writing, research and collecting data. The team sat down no more than a week ago in the Ambassador’s office to sketch out the nature of our study. I was informed of the projects effort to create a documentary. Five minutes after this conversation began, I was appointed by the team as its director.

The director of a documentary? Never in my life would I have thought of such a title. But in just three days, I find myself completely invigorated and immersed in the intricacies of the job. Angles, lighting, facial expressions, scenery, objects, and symbolism – all of these elements are crucial in grasping the essence of the characters and events we have already experienced.

Ambassador Ahmed calls me ‘the next Steven Spielberg’. Big shoes to fill, for sure! Right now, the team is in its third day of research and filming in St. Louis, where today we met with former Governor Holden of Missouri. We have also searched for conceptions of the American identity in meeting with Muhamad Hasic, a Bosnian Imam, and Mufti Minhajiddin, the Imam of St. Louis’s largest Islamic center. Tomorrow, we are meeting with local Rabbi’s, and even the Mayor of St. Louis.

Is filming challenging? Absolutely, but it is a challenge that I am most certainly excited for. Keeping that arm straight is perhaps the biggest of all problems. I hope, though, that the battery of my camera does not run out anytime soon, for this journey has only begun.

By the way, be sure to listen to Dr. Ahmed and Madeeha on "St. Louis on the Air" from KWMU, a local NPR station.

Here's the video of us listening in the car on the way to a Mosque. We'll write about that later. Watch for a hilarious reaction from the team at the end of the clip.

Craig Considine

The Take off

It finally happened…I looked outside the window as our plane to St. Louis took off from BWI airport towards the clear blue sky. As Craig sat next to me filming the beautiful scene of Washington, DC, from the air, I sat there staring outside the window thinking that just yesterday I was an ordinary student at the College of William and Mary, and here I was today embarking on a journey that would not only change my life but potentially change the face of history.

When we landed in St. Louis we went to our hotels, freshened up and reconvened to discuss the schedule of the day. Our first assignment was to interview Somalian refugees who had settled in the greater St. Louis area. These were low-income quarters inhabited by Somalians who first went to Kenya for refuge and then flew to America. As Craig, Jonathan, and Frankie were filled with excitement to go on the very first assignment, my excitement was a little inhibited by my hunger and I just didn’t know how I was going to make it through the 13 hour fast on the first day of Ramadan.

Soon after, our car pulled up in an area with old, worn out buildings with a number of Somalian children playing around. A couple of men came outside to greet us. While they were warm and welcoming to Frankie, Jonathan, and Craig, most of them refused to make even eye contact with me. The ones who did look at me, seemed very confused at the image of a Muslim girl, wearing a scarf over her head, stepping outside the car with three white men none of whom were related to her by blood. As they tried to make sense of that imagery, I went inside to their prayer area to say my afternoon prayers. I was guided around the building by a 7 year old girl named Zaynab. As I prayed, Zaynab stood next to the wall observing me. When I finished my prayers, she invited me to visit her home. She told me that her mother was currently making some iftaar (Ramadan meal at sunset that marks the end of the fast). I accepted the invitation and went over to Zaynab’s house where her mother, along with her two aunts and four daughters were making dough and manually grinding up beef.

They all lived in a one bedroom apartment while about 15 children slept on the floor. The decorations of the house and the smell of African food gave the illusion that I was sitting right in Somalia with all of them. Zaynab being her mother and aunt’s translator started talking to me about a little background. Her mother, leaving her father in Kenya, had moved with her children and sister to America only two years ago. She was currently supporting her entire family by housekeeping and picking up trash around the area.

The mother then invited me to roll the beef into what is known as ‘samosas.’ As I rolled samosas into perfect triangles, Zaynab’s cousins gathered around and started talking to me about Eid. I told them that I celebrate Eid by wearing new clothes, jewellery and henna. The word ‘henna’ spread an excitement around the entire room. The girls showed me their palms on which they had drawn henna patterns with a pen because they could never afford henna. Zaynab, staring at me with her sparkling eyes asked me if I could come to their house on Eid and put on henna on their hands. I promised to send them some henna even if I wasn’t in St. Louis. While Zaynab went to spread the news, I started asking her other cousin Mana about America. 13 year old Mana said that the only thing she liked about America was her school. The other girls agreed with her. She said that she does not like living in America because people make fun of her here for her typical Muslim attire. They would ask her why she would wear a hijaab (head scarf) and a dress covering from head to toe during the scorching summer heat. With her gleaming eyes glued to Hannah Montana on the TV she told me that she just wanted to go back to Somalia to reunite with her older sister and friends.

Mana’s mother started explaining to me how the situation in Somalia had worsened over the years. She said that she could see houses being blown away right in front of her eyes. Her family split up and fled in different directions just to assure safety of her kids. She also said that she came to America with the hope that she could get America to fix the situation in Somalia and reunite her with her other kids. These Somalian women served as a symbol of strength. They were all either widows or separated from their husbands during war. They all struggled to keep their families together. I felt very annoyed at myself for not being aware of the situation in Somalia.

I said goodbye to the warmest and most hospitable families of Zaynab and Mana. As I walked back with Zaynab, she told me that her only wish for Eid this year was to wear a matching top and skirt for Eid this year because her old ones had worn out. She asked me to find her something nice for her when I return home. I told her I would try my best. She pulled me down, gave me a kiss on my cheek, and said “I really really love you. I just want you to come back and see me again.” Tears started trickling down my eyes as Zaynab held me tight in her feeble arms for a couple of minutes. That hug changed my entire life around. A few hours ago all I could think of was when I would get a chance to eat next. Now all I could think about was how to fulfill Zaynab’s wish and help these women support their families. I realized that for the first time in 21 years I had truly understood the spirit of Ramadan. The essence of Ramadan and Islam – the word ‘Compassion’ could never have been taught to me in a better light.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Introduction to the team and Day 1, St Louis

Ramadan Mubarak.

I am writing this from the plane from DC to St. Louis on our first leg of the trip. We are really excited to be launching the trip today, as you’ll see from the video below. (We each say “excited” several times.)

We start in St. Louis today. Hailey tells me that Lewis and Clark began their exploration from St. Louis so it’s fitting, I suppose.

The schedule is jam packed for the next 24 days. We plan to update the blog every day with a rotating cast of team members updating us all on their activities and video that we are filming throughout the trip. We will share our personal thoughts, interesting stories or some of the better interviews. Also, you will see some guest bloggers appear from time to time.

The team consists of Frankie Martin, Hailey Woldt, Madeeha Hameed, Craig Considine, myself and of course Dr. Akbar Ahmed. Bios of everyone should be up shortly. Some of us worked on the previous project, Journey into Islam. We have a couple of new faces, but we’ve all worked together before in some way. We are friends, which makes traveling in such close quarters easy. Frankie is peering over my shoulder as we speak. And I'm not even mad at him for losing my peanuts somewhere underneath the seat.

Anyways... The video below is an introduction to the “team”.

Tomorrow, we will have another update after an amazing day in St. Louis.


Here's the link to our YouTube page.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Welcome Message from Ambassador Akbar Ahmed

When I was growing up in Pakistan in the 1960s, when the world needed superhuman acts from it leaders, I was always able to look west. I saw a land of giants with the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and others. I had learned of the founding fathers and their extraordinary vision. The unique features that this young country was constantly striving to improve fascinated many Pakistanis, like Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan who believed in minority and women’s rights. Concepts of pluralism, openness, and cultural integration put forth by Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, in the 18th century were being simultaneously challenged and enacted. I admired America from afar.

I still admire America. And when I settled in Washington DC in August of 2001, I was eager to embrace the virtues that America had shone on the world.

As a trained anthropologist, I had always been fascinated with American culture. America was a melting pot and Muslims were a part of that, however invisible they may have been. The events of September 2001, made me acutely aware that this ‘invisibility’ was temporary. Islam would become the focal point of the war on terrorism, both abroad and here in America. Muslims Americans are not the first to go through the sometimes difficult process of integration. We have seen it with African Americans, American Indians, Japanese Americans and Italians to name a few.

In 2006, I led a research team through the Muslim world, visiting 9 countries from the Middle East to South Asia to Far East Asia. I brought along a trusted team of young Americans. In essence, I was a guide for my young team to the Muslim world. We spoke to Presidents, Prime Ministers, students, Cab drivers and families in their own homes. We visited Mosques and Madrassas. Our goal was to listen to their views. We handed out questionnaires to hundreds of people in each country and wrote up the results of our trip in Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization.

With my sabbatical leave from American University approaching this fall, I decided that I would again turn to my young team, only this time asking them to be my guide. Most of my team from the last project and some fresh new blood will be taking me through my home away from home, a Journey into America.

On September 1st, 2008 my team of young American scholars and I will embark upon a ‘first of its kind’ anthropological journey throughout the United States. Through in-depth interviews, questionnaires and observations, my team and I will have the unique opportunity to examine the contemporary attitudes and perceptions of Muslims and non-Muslims in the post 9-11 era. In meeting with prominent local officials, university students, and religious leaders of all denominations, this study will analyze the American values of pluralism, openness, and cultural integration put forth by the founding fathers.

Upon exploring the cultural, social, and political fabric of the Muslim community, this project will also actively engage in rediscovering American identity. As a Muslim who believes in the vision of the founding fathers as seen in the The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, I am hopeful that we will be able to rediscover this unique vision.

For those who remain skeptical about a Muslim touring and commenting on America, I recall another foreigner who approached America with a great deal of affection and admiration. If someone with a French background can make a lasting contribution, I believe someone with a Pakistani background can certainly attempt the same. I am setting off therefore with confidence in my heart but also armed with a copy of De Tocqueville’s classic and the words of Jefferson, Franklin and Washington ringing in my ears.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed

Washington, DC

September 28, 2008

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Journey into America Press Release

American University Professor Akbar Ahmed to Embark on Cross-Country Trip for Ethnographic Study of Muslims in America

Renowned Muslim Anthropologist Taking One-Year Sabbatical to Examine America Through the Eyes of a Muslim

Contact: Jon Hussey, AU Media Relations, 202-885-5935 or

WASHINGTON, D.C. (September 1, 2008)—Akbar Ahmed, renowned anthropologist and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies in American University’s School of International Service, is taking a one-year sabbatical to research 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, the team will be posting their thoughts as well as photos and videos from their experience to their blog,

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 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.

Ahmed 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, The Buxton Initiative 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.

American University is a leader in global education, enrolling a diverse student body from throughout the United States and nearly 140 countries. Located in Washington, D.C., the university provides opportunities for academic excellence, public service and internships in the nation’s capital and around the world.