By Akbar Ahmed
American political commentator Bill Maher, his voice dripping with the vitriol which he reserves for Islam, made the claim last week when interviewing Breitbart Editor Alex Marlow on his HBO program, Real Time with Bill Maher, that interfaith dialogue and tolerance of other religions is not possible in the Muslim world. He particularly singled out Pakistan.
I found it ironic then that on June 20, a mere four days after Maher’s program aired, Ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry hosted an interfaith Iftar at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, DC, welcoming some of Washington’s most prominent interfaith leaders. As an embassy abroad is considered to be the terrain of the nation it represents, we were on Pakistani territory.
The 250 prominent Muslim and non-Muslims—ambassadors, senior State Department officials, journalists, and community and religious leaders—filled the hall to capacity. Distinguished speakers representing the major faiths addressed the gathering and emphasized the need to build bridges between religions.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Catholic Archbishop of Washington, gave a remarkable speech emphasizing the closeness of Islam and Christianity, noting in particular how both faiths love and revere the Virgin Mary. Cardinal McCarrick also said he was thrilled to announce that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, is visiting Pakistan soon, saying how His Holiness is particularly excited about his visit and that he believed His Holiness would fall in love with Pakistan.
Ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry hosted an interfaith Iftar at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, DC, welcoming some of Washington's most prominent interfaith leaders. Distinguished speakers representing major faiths addressed the gathering and emphasised the need to build bridges between religions
Representing Hinduism was Nanik Lahori, a member of the Board of Directors of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, DC. He discussed how Allah and Brahma, the names of God in Islam and Hinduism, represent the same reality, and how as such, it is of the utmost importance that we as Muslims and Hindus treat each other as part of a common humanity.
Dr. Rajwant Singh, the Founder and Chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, spoke about how close Islam is to Sikhism and how the sacred scripture of the Sikhs is replete with sayings and verses of Baba Farid, the great Sufi saint. Dr. Singh also quoted several verses of Baba Farid and Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, on peace, love and humility, which he said were at the heart of both traditions. The verses were like a mirror to each other and confirmed the closeness of thought.
Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, the Director of Social Justice and Intergroup Relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, gave the Jewish perspective, and Jo Reed, a Director at Soka Gakkai International-USA, representing the Buddhist faith. Both cited their respective sacred scriptures.
I was honoured as in the past, to be requested to speak on behalf of Islam as part of the Iftar. I opened my remarks by discussing how the Bismillah cites the two greatest names of God, Rahman and Rahim, or the Compassionate and Merciful, out of the 99beautiful names in the holy Quran. It is repeated all day throughout the world by millions of Muslims. I also shared with the audience several insightful verses from the Quran which I believe are not cited often enough, particularly in these times of great turmoil around the globe. They included: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other)).” (49:13) and” Let there be no compulsion in religion.” (2:256)
I additionally discussed the importance of Ilm, or knowledge, which is the second most-used word in the Quran and went on to cite my favourite saying of the Prophet (PBUH): “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”
Following the remarks of myself and the other speakers, Ambassador Chaudhry spoke about the importance of religious tolerance in our diverse and conflicted world today and about countering the ongoing threat and inherent closed-mindedness of terrorism. He also emphasized that Islam is a religion of peace - a sentiment often forgotten in the West. To underline his points, the Ambassador quoted the Quaid’s famous speech before the Constituent Assembly: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” The Ambassador also quoted the Farewell Sermon of the holy Prophet (PBUH): “O people! Indeed, your Lord is one and your father is one. Indeed, there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, nor of a non-Arab over an Arab, nor of a white over a black, nor a black over a white, except by Taqwa (piety).”
When I mentioned to Ambassador Chaudhry the irony of Bill Maher’s remarks in the context of the interfaith conviviality around us as we broke our fast, the Ambassador smiled broadly. Perhaps he was thinking that for the interfaith Iftar next year he would request Bill Maher to come and see for himself how Pakistan and other Muslim countries, in spite of the serious challenges they face such as terrorism, can be great centres of bridge building and dialogue between faiths.
Akbar Ahmed is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, D.C. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar