In a region fraught with seemingly intractable conflict, my recent visit to Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK),which President Clinton has called the most dangerous place on earth, inspired in me a newfound hope for the future of South Asia. On the invitation of President Masood Khan, in late June I visited AJK, a land of stunning vistas amidst the celebrated Himalayas, to lecture at the University of AJKin Muzaffarabad, the capital of AJK, and at Mirpur University of Science and Technology (MUST) in New Mirpur City.For my first lecture on June 25 at the AJK University,Vice Chancellor Professor Muhammad KaleemAbbasi chaired the session. Some 300 senior civil servants, deans, faculty, and students were in attendance. The main hall was packed to capacity. The audience listened to my lecture with rapt attention, then followed up with lots of questions and comments. Most encouraging for me was their enthusiasm, especially that of the youth and women.Our three-hour event at the University was followed by a formal lunch hosted by President Masood at the new Presidency. President Masood, a gifted orator with a brilliant command of English and Urdu, made gracious comments about my scholarship to the distinguished gathering at lunch, “I say it without any exaggeration that no one in Pakistan and in the whole Muslim world is equivalent to the stature of Dr Akbar Ahmed. He is such a learned and incredible scholar that we feel proud of him.” I was moved to note that thE tragic brutality these people have frequently faced across the border have not created despair. The Kashmiris I met at all levels were confident and optimistic about the futureThe next day, I traveled to Mirpur to lecture at MUST before a full house in the university auditorium in a session chaired by Vice Chancellor Professor Habib-ur-Rehman.Again, I was deeply impressed by the campus community’s response to my lecture and appreciated how many women and students asked questions and actively engaged with the ideas. I was not surprised to receive this response, though, as the people of Mirpur are renowned for their enterprising and hardworking nature. They have a strong presence in the Bradford region in the UK and have produced some famous names including Lords, Mayors and Members of Parliament.President Masood said he deliberately invited me so the universities could benefit from the interaction. I myself benefited immensely, as this was my first trip to the campuses, and I met some very bright people across gender divides and age groups. I was escorted throughout by the Private Secretary to the President, Professor Atiq-ur-Rehman, a knowledgeable and competent senior civil servant. We had two VIP cars and a police escort of a half a dozen waving aside traffic; but because most of my time was spent on campuses, I got to talk to a wide range of people.Wherever I presented, I was sure to speak of the importance of valuing dialogue over the clash of civilizations. I shared that all Muslims must embrace ilm and promote the concepts of humanity and kindness as demonstrated by the Holy Prophet of Islam (PBUH).I remarked too that we are living in a world which is interconnected and reminded the attendees they must be involved in global events. I said they cannot be sitting in isolation and say they have nothing to do with what is happening around the world. I urged the people of AJK, Pakistan, and the whole Muslim world to rediscover our lost ideals of compassion, courtesy, and knowledge, and to remember that no one has the right to bully or harass anyone else over their religious beliefs, rituals, or creed.I made sure to remind the audience that their home of Kashmir is the home of countless poets, scholars, and Sufi saints and told them they need to keep this heritage alive and continue to value knowledge and scholarship, especially in the midst of the protracted and tragic conflict.I was moved to note that the daily stories of tragic brutality these people have faced across the border have not created despair. The Kashmiris I met at all levels were confident and optimistic about the future. They are intensely patriotic and love their land passionately. The violence across the border is never far from people’s consciousness here, as large numbers of refugees have escaped with horror stories of gross human rights violations – and continue to do so.President Masood wrote to me after I returned to Islamabad to say, “As I mentioned during your visit, it was our privilege to have you in our midst. The students and faculty of the University of AJK and MUST benefited immensely from your lectures and the interactive sessions that followed. The feedback from both the Vice Chancellors is very positive. More importantly, you engaged young students and that would, I am sure, deeply influence their lives and how they look at the world. Thank you once again. With my highest regards, Masood Khan.”My American friend and former teaching assistant,Pawan Bali, an Indian Kashmiri of the Sikh faith wrote to me upon learning of my trip to AJK, “Seeing all the dreadful violence and funerals everyday here, I can only wish for some reconciliation for this land. Such a beautiful place, which has become a land of graveyards. Losing a dear friend to this violence has shaken me to the core. I see so much value to your work, as always. Hope you spread the message and leave a trail wherever you go. We can only strive for peace, as a memorial to all loved ones who have fallen to this violence.” In her statement, she refers to the recent brutal killing of prominent Kashmiri journalist Shujaat Bukhari.At the same time, top Srinagar journalist Zahid Muhammad in Peace Watch Kashmir opened his very positive review of my Journey into Europe by agreeing with Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick who called the author a “treasure”.In a June 12 article, Daily Times even noted in a headline after I presented President Masood Journey into Europe in Islamabad, “Interreligious dialogue can help resolve conflicts: AJK president.” It must be noted too that President Masood is no outsider making these sweeping pronouncements. The President is a son of the soil with a deep love of the land and its people, like his Private Secretary and most of the bureaucracy.The conflict in Kashmir cannot be solved overnight. Both India and Pakistan are determined to claim the entire region known as Kashmir, parts of which are Indian, Pakistani and even Chinese administered.President Masood recognises from the heart of the conflict zone that in order to bring peace to Kashmir, India and Pakistan must tackle the crisis together.Every sane person with humanity in their heart must play their due role in bringing peace to this beautiful region with its talented people; they must help to end the violence and create peace and prosperity in the land.Perhaps I am naïve and an idealist; but if love and understanding can replace the current blind hatred, then all of us in South Asia — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians — can live together in harmony.That is the message of hope I received from my trip to Azad Jammu and Kashmir.The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University,Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity Published in Daily Times, July 14th 2018.