In Krista Bremer’s interview [“In God’s Name,” April 2006], Muslim scholar Ebrahim Moosa says, “Most Americans think they are moral, yet remain unconcerned about the immoral way their government exercises power. . . . Then again, I suppose that if Americans really thought about what their government is doing, they might go crazy.”
A few weeks prior to reading this, I watched the Oscar-winning 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds about the Vietnam War. I saw a great many parallels between the lies and folly of the Vietnam War thirty years ago and the lies and folly of the Iraq War today. At the end, the director asks Randy Floyd, a Vietnam veteran and former B-52 pilot, whether the American people have learned anything from the Vietnam experience. Floyd replies: “I think we’re trying not to. I think Americans have worked extremely hard not to see the criminality that their officials and policymakers have exhibited.”
The only reason our leaders can get away with perpetrating such outrageous horrors is because we let them.
Ebrahim Moosa’s opinions on George W. Bush and his foreign policy coincide exactly with mine. This administration’s insistence on promoting U.S. interests by military or economic means has eroded our reputation in the world. We should ask what we can do that would be in the interest of all nations and would repair our relations to the rest of the world.
Ebrahim Moosa says: “Consumption patterns and greed, not religion, are the causes of war.”
A typical middle-class American is among the richest one-tenth of one percent of all the people who have ever lived. This is the cause of our isolation and our lack of knowledge about the world; we have constructed a barrier of money around ourselves to keep the rest of the planet at bay and keep us fat and happy. Our hyperaffluence has led to our becoming intellectually and morally flabby, not to mention needy and whiny. It has had an infantilizing effect upon us all.
Ebrahim Moosa’s responses to Krista Bremer’s questions left me feeling angry, defensive, and suspicious. I am no closer to trusting Muslim culture than I was before reading this interview. He starts by insulting Westerners, claiming that we don’t know the difference between a religious person of faith and a fundamentalist whose adherence to religion results in rigidity, intolerance, and oppression. He then moves right into describing a Muslim society where the “voice of religion prevails,” without so much as a nod to the rigidity, intolerance, and oppression that result from such influence.
Bremer tries again and again to question Moosa on aspects of Muslim society that we Westerners find intolerable. I read the majority of his responses as a mixture of “You just don’t get it” and “It’s all your fault.” Moosa’s interview is filled with disdain toward a country and a way of life that he obviously enjoys and that provides him with a professorship and a “home tucked away in a typical American suburb of cul-de-sacs and neatly mowed lawns.” Perhaps he would prefer to live in a fundamentalist society where religious factions are blowing each other up and blaming the West for all that’s wrong with their lives.
Reading Krista Bremer’s softball interview with Ebrahim Moosa, I kept wishing she would question a number of his statements: Is there much difference between saying that some women in the Middle East today are “quite comfortable the way they are” and saying that some slaves were treated well by Southern plantation owners? Is it a bad thing that messages from the West conflict with a cultural mandate to “produce as many children as possible”? Do we really want to keep people in the Third World in the dark so they will have “no basis for comparison”? Does a careful reading of the Koran really show that its “overriding sentiment . . . is peace at any cost?” And are “consumption patterns and greed, not religion” really the causes of war?
History shows clearly that religious unreason is the major cause of war, to this very day. It is unreasonable for a desperate man dreaming of heavenly virgins to strap on explosives and blow himself to smithereens, along with a pizza parlor full of innocent teenagers. It is equally unreasonable for George W. Bush to claim that God authorized him to invade Iraq. I would much prefer that the voice of reason prevail in all arenas of life.
I was impressed with Ebrahim Moosa’s knowledge and philosophy until he described the Iraqi insurgency as a “legitimate” attempt to overthrow a foreign occupation. Exploding car bombs in crowded markets and killing children and noncombatants is not legitimate. As to his assertion that the U.S. has put Iraqis at war against one another, has the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis not been going on for centuries?
Ebrahim Moosa responds:
I began writing this reply in the charming city of Lahore, Pakistan, where I had come to interview Muslim religious functionaries, instructors, and students at the seminaries, or madrasas, as part of my research for my upcoming book, Inside Madrasas. What struck me most during the interviews was how many people dismissed the destruction of the World Trade Center and the craven rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of a great U.S. conspiracy to justify the invasion of Muslim lands. I was about to judge those Muslims as pathological when the critical responses of some Sun readers reminded me how rife with suspicion and conspiracy theories U.S. society is too. Do not a significant percentage of Americans, against all evidence, believe that Saddam Hussein orchestrated the events of September 11?
If the responses of these correspondents are any indication, then many people in the U.S. still do not “get” Islam and Muslims. I wish Patricia Daly could talk to the Muslim seminary folks I interviewed, so I could witness her compete in an exercise of comparative suspicion. Of course I would never want to live in a fundamentalist state like Saudi Arabia or Iran, or even in “liberated” Afghanistan. But I am sobered by the fact that we in the U.S. also face the ominous prospect of fundamentalist rule. Do we not have a fundamentalist Christian president engaged in the feckless exercise of building an empire? I have chosen to teach in the U.S. because the universities here have the best resources of any learning institutions in the world, and despite the shrinking intellectual freedoms, they are still comparatively freer than those in other countries.
We could do a better job, however, of preparing our students to become good global citizens by informing them about different religious traditions. Some Americans, like Don Perryman, think that, in order to understand Islam, you have only to read the Koran, just as some — though not all — Christians believe one can understand Christianity merely by reading the Gospels. The Koran is but one source of Muslim teachings, a collection of fragments of commentaries on selected events in the life of the prophet Mohammed, supplemented by the experiences of the early Muslim community, the learning of subsequent generations of Muslims, and basic common sense. Trying to understand Islamic views on war and peace, governance and economics, solely by consulting the Koran is a monumental error committed by not only scores of non-Muslims, but by many Muslims too.
Islam is, at heart, an interpretive tradition. In my book Ghazali and the Politics of Imagination (University of North Carolina Press) I demonstrate the complexity of Muslim thought through the work of al-Ghazali, an influential figure in the Muslim tradition. It used to be that when Muslims had a query about religion, they would consult a learned authority. Nowadays the do-it-yourself version of Islam unfortunately only promotes ignorance. If you are going to read classical Islamic treatises yourself, do not be surprised to find interpretations from a bygone age, such as theories of governance that reflect an imperial theology, where the Muslim is privileged over the non-Muslim, the free person is privileged over the slave, the male is privileged over the female. To find a contemporary Islamic position on citizenship and gender, you will have to consult contemporary texts, of which there are many.
Bart Heffernan would be relieved to know that I do not believe insurgents are exempt from criticism. Legitimate insurgencies undermine their cause when they attempt to outdo their foes in spectacles of violence. Military aggression toward noncombatants is a noxious practice, and so are the violent excesses committed by those who espouse the cause of resistance to such aggression. The problem today is that the human-rights violations of resistance movements, like those mounted by the Palestinians and the Iraqis, are deemed contemptible, whereas the state-sponsored violence of the U.S. and Israeli governments gets a pass under the banner of legitimacy. There is an English phrase for such behavior: a double standard.
For Heffernan to say that Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq have been battling each other for centuries reflects a lack of knowledge. Sunnis and Shiites intermarried under Saddam’s tyrannical rule, and both Sunnis and Shiites opposed his regime. Before the U.S. invasion, there was one pathological killer in Iraq: Saddam Hussein. Now there is a U.S.-trained killing industry in Iraq, as well as a pitiless insurgency killing thousands. Who has provoked the grisly spectacle of death in Iraq since 2003: the tyrant jailed in Baghdad, or the ostensible liberator of Iraqis ensconced in the comfort of the White House?
There is little room for debate when one side has made up its mind in advance that religion is the cause of all wars, as Don Perryman has. That is an old, and dare I say, hackneyed claim. In a rapidly globalizing world, it is imperative to listen to the disagreeable views of others with a modicum of empathy and a desire to learn, or else we have resolved in advance to shipwreck our increasingly interdependent civilization. Anger, defensiveness, and suspicion are the major obstacles to healthy understanding.