Currently a visiting scholar at Union Theological Seminary in New York,he is the author of On Being a Muslim and Qur'an Liberation & Pluralism.
In the U.S. media, you seem to have become the go-to-guy for a progressive voice of Islam. How large a movement is progressive Islam?
Like most religious movements, we claim we've always been there and thatthere have always been strands of it in Islam. But progressive Islam hasnever been in the forefront, has never been the accepted officialtheology. To be honest, we are a small minority in different parts ofthe world, but the current crisis seems to be pushing people into agreater understanding and appreciation of progressive Islamic theology.
What does progressive Islam offer in the current crisis?
We Muslims often argue about what the Prophet Muhammad did or didn't do,or about whether something was sanctioned by the Prophet or by earlyMuslims. Such theological precedents are very important to us.
Shortly after the bombing happened, as I was teaching a class and talking about Muhammad's life in Mecca and Medina, it occurred to me that it is a problem for us Muslims that we have only two theological paradigms and precedents on which to base our lives, and that that limitation is in part responsible for the mess that we are in. The one is the paradigm of a community of oppressed people in Mecca, and the other is of a Muslim community that is in control in Medina. What we don't have is a model for coexisting with other people in equality.
But there is a third way, what I call the "Abyssinian paradigm," which refers to the time when the Prophet sent a group of his followers from Mecca to go and live in Abyssinia. They lived there peacefully for many years, and some of them did not return, even after Muslims were in power in Mecca. They did not make any attempts to turn Abyssinia into an Islamic state. They sent good reports back about the king under whom they were living, and how happy they were living there.
This is the third paradigm that Muslims today more than ever need to revive because it is crucial for the sake of human survival and coexistence. Until recently the notion of coexistence and cultural tolerance was pretty controversial for mainstream Islamic thinkers, but I was surprised at a recent Muslim conference to hear more and more people talking about the need to revive this Abyssinian paradigm.
I see mostly two responses, particularly within the Muslim community in the United States. The one asks, "How can we show people a different, a better face of Islam?" The other one--and it's not the majority response--asks, "How can we radically transform the faith of Islam?" And for that agenda it's incidental whether other people see a better face or not.
Beyond that, there have been many different reactions to Sept. 11 in the Muslim community. It is true that a significant part of the community has quite frankly secretly--and in some parts of the world, even openly--rejoiced in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Another part of the Muslim world has been unequivocal in its condemnation and in sadness about these events.
Then there are others who, while sad about the loss of innocent human lives, nevertheless would have had no issue with seeing those buildings go. For them, the buildings were symbolic of a different kind of "terrorism" represented by the global economic system and its effect on the Third World. As a direct result of the bombing of Afghanistan, that kind of resentment toward the United States has further increased.
Is that resentment widely shared in the Islamic world?
I don't think it is limited to the Islamic world. For example, after the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, who sent thousands of Kurdish people to their death with chemical weapons, was voted "Man of the Year" by 94 percent of the African listeners of the BBC. I wouldn't be surprised at all if this year Osama bin Laden will emerge as Man of the Year in Africa.
Resentment of the U.S. is widespread across the Third World. On Sept. 11, people in many black townships in South Africa were rejoicing, as were some in Latin America. But the news value of this rejoicing only extended to reactions in the Middle East.
So while it is not a peculiarly Muslim phenomenon, this resentment does perhaps get aggravated in the Muslim world because for many Muslims it's a double anger. It's both an anger at the fact that the United States is controlling relations all over the world and an anger at the fact that Muslims are not the ones in control.
The particular Muslim resentment about not being the ones in control stems from ancient memories of the first Medina, the so-called "Golden Age of Islam," and the desire to return to this state of near-mythical perfection. Medina is seen as the perfect paradise on earth, as a time when Muslims ruled the world and everything about it is glorified and mythologized.
This mythical period is contrasted with the misery of today. The current image of the Muslim world is one of ruin and devastation, petty dictatorships and wars, starvation and begging bowls, and an endless current of refugees. So when you can't gel your glamorized version of your past with your current reality, it leads to a pretty messed-up psyche.
How large a role does the U.S. alliance with Israel play in driving theresentment of the United States in the Muslim community?
U.S. foreign policy on Israel is certainly a key factor. If one leaves aside the notion of God as a real estate agent, today's Israel is viewed as a colonialist implant in the Middle East. Its policies, particularly in the occupied territories, have created enormous resentment and bitterness. U.S. support for Israel is held up as the example par excellence of the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy.
I believe in the right of Israel to exist. We have to accept reality, because too much water has flowed under the bridge. It's painful, of course, that even as we're talking, new realities are being created with the building of additional settlements-more water is being brought to flow under the bridge-precisely to take advantage of this kind of generous thinking that I'm expounding.
The U.S. armed Saddam to fight the Iranians; we armed the predecessorsof the Taliban to fight the Soviets; now we're getting into bed with theNorthern Alliance. Is the U.S. realpolitik approach to foreign policycontributing to our problems in the Middle East?
Absolutely. Much of what we have seen these days is really the comeuppance of earlier policies. The chickens are coming home to roost. But I don't think the United States has learned its lessons in terms of the allies it takes on board.
Now the U.S. government acts out of great anger. There is a kind of cowboy mentality that has set in. Nobody wants to think, and then people come and ask me, "OK, so tell us: What do you think we should be doing now?" That question is very narrowly focused on what we should do now in response to what has just happened and whether there is any alternative to bombing.