Why does it appear to many Americans that discontented Muslims are violent?
There are two answers. The first is that even if a million Muslims around the world were actively engaged in terroristic violence-which is a fantasy number-that's still one million out of 1.4 billion. So we're talking about an incredibly minuscule percentage of Muslims who are actively using violence to register their discontent. The fact that the media cover the violence as if it's representative of the larger Muslim world is part of the problem, not part of the reality.
We need to understand that most Muslims who are opposed to the way their societies are governed or to the global world order are either passively accepting it and just grumbling, like most people, or trying to work through politics, or trying to emigrate to other countries. They're protesting the same way most of us protest.
Let's turn to two specific examples from the headlines. The first one is the ongoing violence in France. Young Muslims rioted for more than two weeks. What does Islam have to do with their rage, if anything?
In France, Islam is not the problem. The problem is that the people who are "revolting"--the word that President Chirac has used--are doing so because they are Muslim and have been discriminated against because of this for decades. In other words, because they are Muslim and black African, they have been discriminated against. They come from countries all of which were colonized, often brutally, by France. They come to France with the promise of the republican ideal of equality. But instead they are segregated into ghettoes, get the worst jobs, don't get access to good housing, good education, or a chance for a good life
And is this an expression of what you refer to as "ghetto Islam"?
Yes. And this is very important, because while it's a ghetto Islam in the sense that these are Muslims who have been segregated into ghettoes who are rioting, they're not doing so because they're Muslim. In fact, the last time there was a very specifically anti-Muslim event in France, the passage of the anti-head scarf ban in 2004, Muslims responded peacefully. When the organized Muslim community felt a slight by the state, it responded within the system.
This time, these are kids who are Muslim culturally, certainly by heritage. But most are not acting as Muslims. And the only good thing to come out of these riots is the surprising fact to most commentators that it appears that the extremist Muslim groups have not been a presence here. So far, they have not been able to make the inroads everyone was scared that they would make among these poor French kids who would seem to be the natural recruiting ground for them.
Holding up a mirror to each side
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I think it proves it. I was in France a few weeks ago, right before the riots broke out, speaking to [Muslim] activists. They were saying the same thing the kids are saying now: "We want to become integrated into France." This is not a bunch of nihilistic kids who have lost all hope. This is a typical French response. There's a history of this kind of violent response in France over exclusion from the vaunted French Republican identity. So Islam has played a role in many ways by its absence; not by its presence.
Let's talk about the second news-related example: the recent terror attacks in Amman, Jordan-Muslims killing Muslims.
It's an example of what I believe is the failure of Muslim leaders across the board to respond early on when this kind of jihadi culture was emerging in the '80s and '90s. Too many mainstream and leading Muslim voices either ignored it, or excused it, or justified it, or criticized it except when it came to the two or three exceptions, which always includes Israel and one or two others, such as Chechnya.
I wrote a piece called "Sheik al-Dhari's Disastrous Gamble and Ours". When I was in Iraq and met with him last year, I asked him how Iraqis could resist the U.S. occupation. He said, "We will get rid of the Americans even if means killing every infidel." This kind of nonchalant embrace of violence is just one example of the larger unwillingness of too many--although by no means all or even most--Muslim leaders to take on the violent culture that has emerged within Muslim societies and has allowed this to mushroom. And it's at least partly why, in my opinion, the so-called moderate religious leaders have become increasingly irrelevant.
Why did this happen in Amman?
Because [Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia leader] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the insurgents in Iraq understand full well that Amman is the foreign base of the occupation of Iraq. Tens of thousands of Westerners are there as part of the Iraq occupation. And Amman has become a place where Iraqis who are part of the political process come to meet each other if it's generally too dangerous to do so in Iraq. These bombings, in one sense, were given a religious veneer in the way Zarqawi talks about them: Jordan in bed with the infidels and the crusaders. But the truth is that the terrorists went there because these hotels in Amman have become a strategic base for the occupation of Iraq, which is the crucial thing they're fighting against.
A culture and a system helped turn Zarqawi from a street thug into the arch-terrorist successor to Osama bin Laden. And that system, while it's still very much a minority within Islam, has a lot of power and money. And too many Muslim leaders have not acknowledged it or tried to deal with it until recently.
I want to constantly hold up a mirror to both sides. Because when you hold up a mirror to either side, you always see the other. So if I want to challenge Muslims to deal with the violence that has increasingly come to define Muslim politics or responses to oppression, you need to do the same thing in America and see how violent a society America has become.
Take the invasion of Iraq, for example, from a Muslim perspective: We've gone into a country without any good reason, based on lies, and killed over a 100,000 people, and brought about exactly the opposite of what we said we were going to do. And only a tiny minority of Americans has actively come out and opposed it. So it looks as if American society backs violent, aggressive, and unlawful behavior of their government. That's how Muslims view us. With good reason, the same way we can look at the Muslim world and say, "Why aren't there bigger outcries?"
How is it that what I call this pathology of violence has been able to emerge in the Muslim world? It's because too many Muslim leaders didn't stop it at the root because it wasn't directed against them. And it was a good way to channel people's anger toward someone other than their own societies and their own elites, or their own positions.
This is where arrogance and ignorance come in: Both Muslims and Westerners, Americans more specifically, are ignorant of the fact that it's still a small minority of people involved in this violence and hatred and so-called clash of civilizations.
If the Muslim world has a high percentage of regimes that oppress their people and encourage them to direct their anger outward rather than to have internal reform, why are you critical of those people who want to bring democracy to the Muslim world?
I am in no way critical of wanting to bring democracy to the Muslim world. What I'm critical of is the hypocrisy involved with people assuming you can bring democracy through occupation, invasion, or force. When I go to the Middle East, the thing that people tell me is, the rhetoric is so great; Bush constantly says that we are supporting Arab democracy or Middle East democracy. But the reality is U.S. policies have in no way changed. We have not fundamentally challenged any of our ally governments in the region to democratize.
For example, Professor Noah Feldman went to Iraq after writing a book called "After Jihad," which is a great idea. Who wouldn't like jihad to be transcended? But when you start the book as he did, with a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad about the greater jihad being spiritual and the lesser jihad being on the battlefield, you begin in the wrong way. This is not considered sound, strong hadith. Most Muslim theologians do not believe that the prophet Muhammad actually said it. And conservative Muslims have been using this fact to bash moderate Muslims, saying, in effect, "You don't even know your own religion. You're using this hadith as if this is a strong argument for stopping violence, or stopping jihad when, in fact, it's not considered to be the Prophet's words."
What diplomats can learn from musicians
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In the book, you call for a change in our thinking about the Muslim world to ask "What must it feel like to be a Muslim?" Can you give examples of how Jews or Christians could respond to events such as the London subway bombing or the unrest in France, or the bombings in Amman, through this new paradigm?
I asked that question in the context of the fact that with the exception of a small part of the Arabian peninsula, most territory in the Muslim world has been colonized by Europe and/or America in the past 200 years. Muslims perceive this colonization and brutalization as ongoing today.
So when most Muslims are thinking about their interactions with the West, or with non-Muslims...
They look at them through a prism of centuries of European domination and then American domination.
And even people who are not well educated think that way?
Sure. You don't need to be schooled to know who your colonizers were. That's the one bit of information people generally know. Muslims are looking at this new global world from the perspective of two centuries or more of European imperial and colonial domination and American involvement they feel is continuing right now.
When Muslim critics write about globalization, secular or religious, they frequently describe it as a new form of imperialism. It's a matter of contemporary reality. And that's the first thing we need to understand when we try to understand any specific actions by someone acting in the name of Islam.
In France, these kids are not rebelling in the name of Islam. They happen to be Muslim. But if we're speaking specifically about people who are using Islam for violence, which is what most Americans care about, we need to look at the worldview that has been shaped, the vision--based on the history that most feel, with good reason, is still the reality.
Then we need to understand why there is no Muslim Gandhi. In fact, there have been many Muslims who have tried to develop nonviolent alternatives. But these people are oppressed by their political leaders, ignored, or actively worked against by America, such as someone like [scholar] Tariq Ramadan. And largely ignored by the media.
So a few Muslims use spectacular violence to change this situation and they get the media. Then the millions who are trying to figure out other ways--the intellectuals, the activists, the academics, the progressive religious scholars--are largely ignored or even actively worked against. So whenever we see this violence, we need to say, "OK, this is horrible. But the Muslim world is much bigger than this." And as consumers of news and information, we need to be determined to find out all the other ways that Muslims are reacting against the violence so that we can help them prevail.
Most Americans are not political activists. Is a better model found in the example of individuals like Professors Akbar Ahmed and Judea Pearl, who conduct their Muslim-Jewish dialogues throughout the country and around the world?
This is the way it's going to happen. These are two people, unfortunately, united by a tragedy [the murder of Judea Pearl's son, Daniel Pearl, by terrorists in Pakistan], and it's sad that it takes tragedy to bring people together. But at least that's something good that can come out of it.
Talk about your personal journey. How did it bring you to concern for understanding people in the Muslim world?
I came to this as a kid, growing up imbued with biblical prophetic ideals, plus the more recent secular prophets, Gandhi and King. In my household, that was what it meant to be Jewish.
You're also a musician who has played with musicians around the world. That greatly informed your perspective in the book, where you propose "culture jamming" to help heal the breach between the Muslim world and Western society.
I've always noticed that musicians tend to get along better than everyone else, and that the greatest music is usually made when you have musicians from many different musical or cultural traditions coming together. Musicians can think beyond the cultural and political differences before and better than anyone. As the best blues guitarist in Iraq told me last year, "Look, I know John Coltrane. I know Jimmy Hendrix. I know all your great musicians. How many Americans actually know any of our great musicians?"
Great music only comes when you think beyond difference because if you put a bunch of differences together on a page, you're not going to create any kind of organic whole. So music is, I think, a great metaphor for how people need to relate.
Heavy metal Muslims
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This is where religion is so crucial. Not as a metaphor, but as an example. Religions are all based on critique and then on transformation. Similarly, culture jamming is the crucial way to give people a positive vision, a new kind of identity based on what I call empathy, which, for me comes from the great French-Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. His idea of empathy was based on radically recognizing the other, whoever your others are. In other words, getting rid of any suppositions you have, getting rid of any historical relations of power.
Take, for example, the way the French look at their Muslim populations--through the prism of "These are the people we colonized. These people are somehow less than us." [French Interior Minister Nicolas] Sarkozy calls them "subhuman scum." This is very relevant because Sarkozy's not just the interior minister, he's also the religion minister. The minister of religion for France says he's going to sandblast subhuman scum out of existence: This is how the man is talking about the 12-24-year-old who are revolting against decades of discrimination. So this is what we're up against. In the face of such attitudes, we need to be able to create a new, transformative vision.
The Abrahamic faiths have the idea of human beings made in the image of God.
Absolutely. Levinas got his idea of empathy from his deep knowledge of Talmud and Jewish tradition. And his great student Jacques Derrida, an Algerian Jew, also learned much of his activism from his being the absolute other. That forced him to think about how you see through false dichotomies and simplistic descriptions of people.
You're saying both sides seem to be mutually deaf and blind to one another's complexity.
I'll give you one example. I'm doing a project now called Heavy Metal Islam, meeting with and recording, performing, dialoguing with some of the best rock and hip hop artists in the Muslim world. I was with a bunch of them in Lebanon a few weeks ago during Ramadan. These are heavy metal musicians. So on one hand, you think of heavy metal musicians: long hair, crazy, completely libertine, without principles, no morals at all. But the truth is that these are smart guys who see no dichotomy between being religious and deeply spiritual Muslims and also embracing the most quintessentially American popular cultural forms like heavy metal or hip hop.
So why are they invisible to most media?
They don't fit the paradigm we have, the false dichotomies. We think if you're a metal musician, you can't be smart. You certainly can't be a religious Muslim and be progressive. It's too hard to wrap your head around a religiously progressive Muslim heavy metal musician.
It's not too hard for the musicians or their fans. I was playing at a festival in Morocco this summer, where there were 20,000 kids for four nights in a row to see these people. They can be all these things. And that's why we need to be much more willing to search out the people who are still in the shadows, who might have the answers for what kind of alternative identities we need to construct if we're going to really move beyond the war on terror.
Is that what you call for at the end of your book as the hudna, the truce that you want the West to work out with Islam?
Our leaders, on both sides, have decided that violence is the best way to relate to each other. And in our names, huge sums of money and a huge amount of blood is being spilled to pursue this agenda. The only way it's going to stop is just more and more of us say, "You know what? We don't have the answers. We don't necessarily know who's ultimately to blame but we know that this situation is untenable. We want all violence by all sides to stop." On all sides, whether Muslim terrorists, U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Palestinians, or Israelis. People on the grass-roots level have to say, "Enough!"
We need a truce so that we can then move toward real dialogue and real peace and real democracy. America has one standard for allies, another standard for everyone else. We want Iraq to be democratic supposedly, but our biggest allies in the region, like Jordan, or Morocco, or Egypt, or Pakistan, aren't. The hard-core left--which largely sets the agenda of the anti-war and alternative globalization movements--wants to fight against the occupation of Iraq and Palestine, but could care less about the occupation of Tibet, or about the legitimate rights of other peoples, whether it's Jews or others, to have their own national or communal goals. So all of us are operating with double standards. And that allows the status quo to continue.
If everyone adopted one standard, which I try to articulate at the end of the book, then it would be impossible for us to endorse all the things we do because we couldn't by our very own standards.
Where do we start?
The first thing is education. We start by understanding the double standards. If we're talking about Americans, by educating ourselves about the reality of our foreign policy and our history. Because Muslims know the history and the present reality of American foreign policy much better than Americans do. Once we understand the realities, we can then know what we need to change. Second, we need to take on the hard task of being brutally honest with each other. And accepting that, My God, my government, let's say for America, or my religion, if you're a Muslim or a Jew or a Christian, has been used to kill or to oppress many, many people or to engage in terroristic violence against many people and I can't be passive anymore.
Why is there so much hatred toward Jews within Islam?
There's a very confusing relationship toward Jews. On one hand, when Islam emerged, Judaism was the main institutionalized historically powerful religion. Jews were the first real organized group that Muslims had to encounter, especially in Medina. And in Muslim theology, the idea of a Jewish betrayal of Muhammad and of the early Muslims produced a very strong trend of anti-Jewish sentiment within Islam right from the start. Muhammad is coming in saying that, he's completing their book. You know, he is coming to fulfill God's will. Well, they heard that before, didn't they? Someone else said that 622 years earlier. So Jews were quite naturally not going to take kindly to yet another person saying he's completing a process that they thought was completed in their own religion, and then his followers wanting to take all the spiritual and economic and political power into their hands.
So there's certainly clear historical and theological reasons why Islam has a negative view toward Judaism at its very start. But the reality is that as Islam developed, that view was muted by the fact that Jews were able to live in Muslim societies. Certainly there was prejudice and certainly there were attacks and discrimination and even violence against Jews, but compared to Europe during much of the past 1,400 years, Jews have fared better in the Muslim world.
In contemporary politics, you have Israel, a state defining itself as Jewish, which is involved from a Muslim perspective in taking away land from Muslims, especially the third most holy land in Islam, and being aligned to the two most powerful forces in the world in the last century, Britain and America. It's not an excuse for Muslims to be this way. It's just an explanation.
But, of course, we're not living in 628. Or 624. And as Tariq Ramadan and other progressive Muslim leaders have said, we need to talk about today. We need to talk about how we build, from a Muslim perspective, a new umma (peoplehood), or, in Judaism, a new am (people or nation) that encompasses everyone.
If something is good for Islam, but is bad for someone else, then we can no longer see it as being good for Islam. To me that is the perfect statement of how all of us need to be thinking. If something's good for Judaism or Christianity, or Islam, and in so doing, it's bad for someone else, then we can no longer define it as good. And that's where I think the idea of one standard of doing things everyone can embrace.
And that's where your idea of "human nationalism" comes in?
The human nationalism idea was inspired by a Muslim writer who said, "You're trying to impose an inhuman globalism on us. But you haven't even given us the chance to have a human nationalism yet." In other words, we Muslims have never been able to realize the West's great humanistic ideals of liberty, fraternity, equality, and you're trying to take away the state and impose some homogenizing globalization on us that's only going to exclude us and marginalize us even more! This is certainly not something most Muslims, or any of us, would accept if we were in their shoes.
So the question is, what can we work out together? That's really the discussion we need to be having.