Is the face of Islam changing?: An interview with Farid Esack

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South African Muslim scholar Farid Esack speaks about post-9/11 perceptions of Islam in this interview from January 2002.

In the aftermath of September 11, South African scholar Farid Esack has become one of the most sought-after interpreters of Islamic thought in the United States. A progressive Muslim theologian who cut his teeth in the anti-apartheid struggle, Esack received his theological education in Pakistan. While studying in some of the same Karachi schools that also educated the leaders of the Taliban, he became increasingly disillusioned with both the narrow Islamic ideology and the oppression of Christians he encountered there. The Pakistani Catholics he met in the 1970s and early '80s introduced Esack to the ideas of liberation theology.

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 (both Oxford/Oneworld).

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 that there have always been strands of it in Islam. But progressive Islam has never been in the forefront, has never been the accepted official theology. To be honest, we are a small minority in different parts of the world, but the current crisis seems to be pushing people into a greater 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 early Muslims. 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. Mainstream Islam is beginning to listen to what we are saying.

What kind of responses do you see within the Muslim community in the aftermath of September 11?

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 September 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 September 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 the resentment 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 predecessors of the Taliban to fight the Soviets; now we're getting into bed with the Northern Alliance. Is the U.S. realpolitik approach to foreign policy contributing 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.

People don't want to discuss things in long terms; they don't want to look at the broader picture. It doesn't fit into a sound bite. If it takes longer than a minute, then we don't have the time.

So now that we are in the middle of a war, is it too late to come up with constructive solutions?

Unfortunately, we know, and the government knows, that these terrorist networks are all over the world. They are very diffuse. In moments of anger, it's understandable to act a bit silly and to imagine that you're going to wipe out terrorism once and for all. But look, for example, at Britain and the Irish question, or Spain and the Basque problem. These problems have been running for decades and decades.

At the end of the day, there has to be an acknowledgment that there were grievances underneath all of these conflicts and that there is no way we will ever be able to sleep peacefully unless we begin to address these grievances.

Is the current crisis an isolated conflict with Islamic fundamentalists, or is this part of a broader conflict between the West and the Islamic world?

I see it as a clash between two religious fundamentalisms. On the one side you have the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the actions we have witnessed. All that clearly represents the fanaticism of a religious fundamentalism.

On the other side of the conflict we are dealing with another religious fundamentalism, one that is not generally recognized as such. The Buddhist theologian David Loy has described faith in the free market as a religion, a religion with a transcendent god, a god that is worshiped and that its adherents have a deep yearning to embrace and to be at one with--and that god is capital.

It also has a theology in the form of economics, a fundamentalist ideology that excludes all others. Its cathedrals are the shopping malls, and there is paradise or the promise of paradise for those who get on board. It is the fastest growing religion in the world today.

If you look at the language of your president, his notion of absolute evil and complete abhorrence, as well as Osama's language of complete abhorrence, neither recognizes the possibility of any grace on the other side. Both espouse very hardened kinds of fundamentalisms.

What you do to Muslims in the world, you do to Christians; what you do to black people, you do to white people; the essential condition of humanness is interconnectedness.

I don't think that Bush is the problem, but neither is Osama solely the problem. It's these fundamentalisms and what gives rise to them that are the crucial issue.

You've had a lot of contact with Islamic fundamentalists. How do you talk with them?

Sometimes I'm a bit adventurous. I recently went to a conference in Michigan of a very conservative Muslim group that had its origins in the broader Islamic fundamentalist movement. I expected to be walking into the lion's den, but instead I found that many people from this group were actually happy to see me and talk to me. It takes some courage to actually go and engage people, but we don't have an alternative to it.

I really believe that fundamentalism is a mindset. I'm currently teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and there are a good number of "fundamentalists" here. Fundamentalism can be economic, or it can be feminist. There are all sorts of fundamentalisms.

The fundamentalist mindset comes from insecurities and fears, and if you want to engage fundamentalists, you need to learn how to address these fears. It is a struggle that needs to be fought at personal, educational, and political levels.

But how could our political and cultural tension escalate to such awful terror acts?

You have to try to think this through from a different point of view. We don't have any problem understanding how the passengers of the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania lunged to the cockpit to get to these hijackers. But they knew their actions meant that they were going to die in the process. The sure prospect of their own deaths didn't keep them from doing what they had to do to prevent greater harm, essentially to save a larger part of humankind.

Difficult as this may be for us to understand, in the twisted minds of these suicide bombers, they too saw themselves as giving their lives so that a larger part of humanity may live. For them the United States is the enemy, Satan incarnate, who is causing chaos and destruction around the world.

How does the history of the Christian-Muslim encounter over the centuries continue to play into current conflicts?

Both of us--Muslims and Christians--haven't learned adequately how to confront our histories. Muslim-Christian tensions continue to play a very important role. If you look at Kosovo, at Bosnia, at Chechnya, it's amazing the kind of incidents and anecdotes that people invoke. People speak about massacres of 400 or 500 years ago as if they happened yesterday. The memory of the past is still very much with us.

What should people know about the history of Christian-Muslim relations?

Certainly the importance of the Crusades. When after September 11 President Bush talked about launching a "crusade" against terrorism, he apparently didn't know that was a bad choice of words. It's true that the word crusade has many other uses in the English language today--people talk about a crusade against guns or a crusade against immorality. But because of the history of the medieval Crusades, this word represents coded language for Muslims.

Of course, history also frequently is manipulated. For example, Jerusalem has only become as important as it is in today's Muslim imagination over the past 50 years. And that happened as a result of political tensions and interests. Today Jerusalem looms far larger in the Muslim religious imagination than it has ever before.

What can ordinary people do to help Christian-Muslim relations?

People need to begin to deepen their encounters with others. Interfaith dialogues are a good place to start.

It's true that sometimes they can seem like somewhat irrelevant forums for a polite show-and-tell. You meet with these other nice people and show them your religion's nice verses about peace and justice and living in harmony, and then you get a nice pat on your back from the other people in the interfaith forum: "Good boy, good boy."

In my book Qur'an Liberation and Pluralism, I took a different approach, looking not at the "nice verses" but rather at the difficult texts of the Qur'an.

I was reminded of that the other day when there was a letter in the New York Times from somebody who was upset about hearing that an imam had said that the Jews and the Christians will never be happy with you until you abandon your religion. She was upset with the imam, but the article she was referring to didn't mention that the imam's quote was actually from the Qur'an. Those kinds of things don't usually get dealt with when dialogue is stuck in politeness. As someone once put it, "Is there life after tea?"

But despite such limitations, by the end of the day, we don't have an alternative to engaging in conversation.

The village of the world that we live in today is completely intertwined. You can't unbake the cake of globalization. You can't separate the sugar from the flour from the water from the vanilla from the cream. What you do to Muslims in the world today, you do to Christians; and what you do to straight people, you do to gay people; what you do to black people, you do to white people; the essential condition of humanness today is interconnectedness.

How do you teach or promote this sense of interconnectedness and tolerance?

I think we need to move more consciously toward a new kind of internationalization that is based on what ordinary people have in common with each other, not on the interests of the elites. Instead of talking about the global reach of the Internet or fast food or fashions, this new internationalization concerns itself with the ties that link the struggles of farmers in Colombia, for example, with the farmers in the Philippines.

Religious people, of course, have always been at the cutting edge of this kind of universalization, in part because we've always believed that our messages were universal. At the same time we need to acknowledge that that has also had a downside when we have couched our universal religious messages in terms of superiority.

What's the particular role of the United States in today's interconnected world?

I think most people here don't have a very accurate perception of their country's role and relations in the world.

I sometimes think of the United States as a very large house that has a huge extended family living in it. The house is headed by the big brother. Every day he comes home with chocolates and sweets, and he looks after the family very, very well.

This family never actually leaves the house. So they have no idea where big brother gets all his goodies from, and they're not very interested in finding out either. They're only too grateful that he's sharing them. They have no idea that, with the help of other bullies in the neighborhood, big brother has been throwing stones and creating havoc all around the block and in other neighborhoods as well.

Then one day, somebody throws a huge brick into the house and hurts several of the family's little sisters and brothers. The family is both angry and confused because big brother has been regaling them with stories about how nice he has been to everybody in the world and how many sweets he has been dishing out to so-and-so. And now so-and-so has come and thrown this brick at the house and hurt the little kids.

So everyone is just completely puzzled at why anyone in the world would do something like that. But big brother quickly says, "It's just because they're jealous of me. They're not built as well and not as good-looking as I am."

Perhaps the challenge for the U.S. is to become less great--if you insist on defining greatness in terms of "well-having." I think the measure of greatness should instead be on "well-being." In the meantime it would be wonderful if the U.S. could exercise its greatness with more humility.