TTBW 1215   ·   'Akbar Ahmed / Islam at the Crossroads'
Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg   ·   PBS feed date: 20 May 2004
  Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg.

The allegiance of Muslim terrorists to a particularly virulent form of Islam has provoked fear and controversy, all across the world. What are the tenets of this faith? Why has it seemingly spawned such fanaticism and hatred - of Jews, Christians, Americans and the West? Is violence a perversion of Islam, as President Bush insists, or inherent in its teachings? Is Islam one faith, or many? To find out, Think Tank is joined by Akbar Ahmed, anthropologist and professor of international relations at American University and the author of Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World.
The topic before the House: Islam at the Crossroads,
This week on Think Tank.
BW: Akbar Ahmed, welcome to Think Tank.
AA: It's a pleasure to be here.
BW: I wondered if we could begin, Akbar, if you could give us a short biography - where you were born, where you went to school, that sort of thing?
AA: Well, I'm from South Asia and I was educated in England.
BW: South Asia meaning where?
AA: Born in India before 1947 when Pakistan was created and then Pakistan.
BW: I see.
AA: And I've had a career of three strands quite distinct. I've been an administrator in Pakistan. I've been a commissioner in the field. I've been an Ambassador, High Commissioner from Pakistan to England. I've also been a scholar on campus at Princeton, Harvard, Cambridge University in England and I've been in the media making films - feature films, documentaries and so on.
BW: I wonder if you could give us sort of a concise rendition of the theme of your very interesting and somewhat controversial book Islam Under Siege?
AA: The essence of the book is that as an anthropologist I find that societies are under siege; they feel under siege in our world today. If you talk to Muslims they will say we are under siege and they'll give you many examples of why they're under siege. If you talk to Israelis they will say we are under siege, surrounded by the Arabs. If you talk to Americans after September - in fact the news was broadcast with the title America Under Siege. So there is a moment in history where simultaneously several world civilizations feel under siege. So I believe it's a very dangerous moment in world history, a time of uncertainty, of violence and of confrontation of civilizations.
BW: Does the West have any choice but what is called the war on terror?
AA: First of all, Ben, I don't look at it in terms of the West and the East or Islam and the West simply because I am an anthropologist and I want to try to have a frame of analysis which takes in global society. You have Huntington explaining what's going on in the world; you have Bernard Lewis, my friend from Princeton explaining what's going on...
BW: This is Sam Huntington, The Clash of Civilization.
AA: Yes, from Harvard. My friend Bernard Lewis from Princeton. Heís an historian minus the, let us say the social scientists view of the world. So for me Iíve got to look at societies and in that sense what Iím seeing are different societies plunged into the post-September 11th world and following a part which really in some senses is leading them to confrontation and feeding the sense of being under siege.
BW: But the violence has been rendered by Muslims, not by Westerners. I mean the Madrid and the 9/11.
AA: Yes, a lot of people would say you're right; that post-September it is in fact the nineteen hijackers are almost all Arabs. The Madrid bombers and so on. But Muslims would argue that they have been suffering for the last half-century. They will give you examples of the Palestinians, of the Kashmiris, of the Chechen, Muslims in the Balkans; they have been uprooted. The majority population of the refugees in the world are Muslim. Millions were uprooted from Afghanistan as a consequence of the Soviet invasion so there is a great deal of turmoil in the Muslim world and that feeds into the sense of siege and then anger and through that - through this process of anger you have violence. So men of violence then are able to influence people.
BW: When was Islam founded?
AA: Islam was founded very early in the 8th century by - 570 was when the prophet was born.
BW: Prophet Mohammed.
AA: Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him - in what is now Saudi Arabia. And he came with a message. He did not say I'm bringing something entirely new. He said I am in the same line of the great prophets who are in the Judeo-Christian tradition. So all the great prophets that are familiar in the bible, in the Jewish text and in the Christian text - Moses, Abraham and so on - are all figures of great reverence within Islam. So many of the values, the customs, the commandments are similar. The notion of a God, of course there were all kind of intra-religious and inter-religious debates, theological doctrine and so on. But if you look at religion as a whole, the similarities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam are remarkable and this is what is not very well known, particularly in the West. It's known much better in the Middle East both to the Christians and the Jews.
BW: What is Wahhabism?
AA: Wahhabism is an ideology within Islam rooted in Saudi Arabia or what was the Arabian Peninsula, emerging from the thinking of Muhammad Wahhab who was a reformer if you like, deep in the Arabian Peninsula several centuries ago. Now you have many ideologies, reformers, reformist movements taking place in all the great faiths whether itís Judaism, Christianity or Islam. The Wahhabis believed in a very literalist interpretation of Islam. I come from South Asia - thatís India, Pakistan, Bangladesh - where one third of the Muslims live. Now Wahhabism is a foreign ideology for most of these people in South Asia. Islam in South Asia is much more tolerant, much more syncretic, even eclectic and there has been a tradition of great, great periods in history in South Asia of tolerance and understanding between different faiths.
BW: We've seen recently Arabs killing Arabs and Muslims killing Muslims having nothing to do apparently to the untutored eye with Westerners or Jews or Christians or America. You had a big hit in Riyadh recently. What is that all about?
AA: Iím trying to answer precisely the question you raised: what is going on in the Muslim world? And I donít really buy these very simplistic theories that we read about particularly, with all due apologies, to people in the West who know very little about the tradition, culture or history of Islam and have these sound-bites to explain this sophisticated, very complicated civilization. Iím trying as a social scientist to explain whatís going on in the Muslim world and whatís going wrong in the Muslim world. The fact of the matter is this. Youíve had half a century of the gap between the rich and the poor increasing, rapid urbanization, internal and international migrations taking place. Youíve had the corruption of the elite. Youíve had many military dictators ruling in the Muslim world, their sons then taking over. Youíve had the sense of loss of hope...
BW: But the actual people who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon, these were not poor people.
AA: They were not poor.
BW: They were mostly middle-class people.
AA: Thatís right.
BW: And Osama is a wealthy man.
AA: Absolutely. My thesis is not the simplistic thesis that the poor are revolting against the rich Americans. Itís not that at all. They are motivated by other factors because when you add up these factors you then realize that there is a great sense of feeling of humiliation, of being under siege, of belonging to a culture which has in a sense lost its voice, and in that sense of hopelessness or despair or rage people want to lash out and what you saw on September 11th was not a rational response, debate or a point of view. It was simply an act of violence. It was an act of murder. Itís a breakdown of society. It is not Islamic argument. It is not Islamic expression or Islamic sentiment at all because we know what Islam is. Islam has had a history. We scholars are acquainted with that history. Youíve had very sophisticated scholars and writers and historians and thinkers within Islam. But this simply flying in planes and killing 3,000 innocent people is not Islam at all.
BW: Do you think there can be a democratic society in the Arab world? Lebanon was in a sort of distorted way for awhile, but whatís going on in Iraq now, I mean, were a lot of reasons for obviously but one reason is to establish some democratic structures. Is this plausible in your mind?
AA: Itís not only plausible, it has to happen. Democracy must come to the Muslim world. The leaders of the Muslim world have to stop making excuses. They will blame Israel, theyíll blame the West, theyíll blame America but they have to confront the fact that theyíre falling behind as a region. Particularly in the Middle East. They have to come into the 21st century. They have to have democracy in the Muslim world. The ordinary Muslim must feel that he can vote in his rulers or administrators or politicians and then throw them out when they are not happy with them. But look at the situation. Youíve got military dictators, youíve got dynasts, kings and chiefs and you have so-called semi-democratic, semi-military, semi-intelligence officials ruling for twenty years, thirty years, forty years. This is a farce and the lives of the ordinary Muslim are becoming unbearable and thatís why you have this pent up rage in the Muslim world.
BW: The reports we hear are that these schools I guess, that were allegedly funded by Saudi money - the Madrases - actually teach little children to hate Jews, Christians, Americans and the West in general. Is that correct and if so what is their rationale?
AA: We must understand the madrassa. Madrassa simply means a religious school. Itís a school. Itís like a Jewish school, a Christian school; itís a religious school and if you removed it education would collapse because these are really simply mud huts sometimes, ordinary rooms sometimes and they provide free education. Now what happened was that in the 1970s and í80s, the Saudis with their great oil wealth were able to pump in a lot of money into the Madrases existing for instance say in Pakistan.
BW: In order to buy peace from their own indigenous...
AA: That and also they had a vision they wanted to export a certain kind of idea of Islam, which was rooted or tinted or colored by the Wahhabi ideology. And that brought a different way of looking at Islam into the Madrases. I was in charge of a division in Baluchistan in Pakistan in the 1980s and I often visited these Madrases and I realized that there was a problem, that there was a storm coming because these young kids would be taught according to a very narrow syllabus - a very narrow syllabus. They were being taught only certain versus of the Quíran for instance. Now thereís nothing wrong that. The Quíran is the holy book of the Muslims. But if you restrict it only to certain versus and leave out the cultural context or political context, the historical context, you have a problem. You are then not only pointing to a hatred of the Jews and the Christians, but of other Muslims. We also must remember that hatred can be internal, not just external.
BW: Well there has been a lot of warfare and bloodshed between Muslim states and between...
AA: The Shia and the Sunni, for instance.
BW: Well explain us briefly if you can because I always get confused. What is the difference between the Sunni and the Shia?
AA: Very simply, the Sunni are the majority population in the Muslim world. About 90 percent. The Shia are about 8 to 10 percent. The Sunni tend to be without a hierarchy of leadership in the religious circles. The Shia have the Ayatollahs, the clerics, so theyíre more hierarchical. The Shia have a very close affinity with the family of the holy prophet and the Shia have evolved an ideology around the martyrdom of the grandson of the prophet, Hussein. And this is what happened at Karbala. And that is why Karbala is so important to the Shia.
BW: Is terrorism a relatively new phenomenon in the Middle East? My understanding in fact is that the word 'assassin' is originally an Arabic word.
AA: It comes from hashish, the drug or the intoxicant or the opiate that was given to certain followers of this famous character called Hassan, centuries ago, who drugged his followers and then theyíd wake up and theyíd be told they were in paradise and they would be sent back to it to assassinate an opponent of this man. And from that came the word assassin - from hashish. So, yes, it does come from the Middle East. Now that again, it was a certain sect within Islam and one of their main targets was none other than Sultan Salahuddin, the famous Saladin who fought King Richard. So here again, itís much more complicated than seeing it in terms of Muslim versus non-Muslim.
BW: But are there passages in the Quíran that can be interpreted to urge Muslims to destroy non-Muslims?
AA: There are not only passages, theyíre very explicit. But again, they have to be read in full. So the first line may say 'you must stand up and fight the nonbelievers; you must stand up and fight the Jews and the Christians and the Muslims who are challenging God or challenging justice or the truth'. And the second line says, 'but if you make peace with them it is better because God prefers peace'. Now what happens, Ben, is that people like Osama bin Laden can pick up that first line, or the critics of Islam who do the same thing - they pick up that first line and say, 'Here we are. Hereís evidence. All Muslims are exhorted and urged to fight.' They donít read the second line of the same verse, which in fact is saying, 'but God prefers peace.' So if you really want to understand Islam it has to be understood in the context of its own culture and its own history, which is not being done. People are really being selective about interpreting Islam.
BW: I just read an article and I have seen many like them about the Islamic attitude toward women. In Saudi Arabia, just to make the list fast, women are not allowed to vote, they cannot drive or work in most government offices, they canít travel without a husband or a male guardian, they have to wear the long neck-to-ankle abaya. Is that accurate? And is it something that has to be reformed?
AA: Again, an important question because women are half the worldís population, but again, we have to remember...
BW: A little more.
AA: Or even more. But we have to remember Saudi Arabiaís one of 57 Muslim nations. Again, in South Asia weíve had female prime ministers. Weíve had the president of Indonesia is at this very moment female. Weíve had governors, editors, ambassadors who have been women. Theyíve led the witness to Jinnah, they led. Fatima Jinnah, his sister was right up in the front of the Pakistan movement in the 1930s. So thereís no real problem as such for women to play their rightful role in society. There is a restriction, again as a social scientist of society. You have a feudal order. You have a tribal order where women then donít get their rights. Women are treated very badly, sometimes very cruelly. That has very little to do with Islam. Thatís more tribal custom and rural society and that has to be challenged. Youíre absolutely right. That has to be reformed and challenged.
BW: There is this argument that just as Christianity went through a reformation that there has to be a reformation of Islam. Do you agree with that?
AA: I would agree but with an important clause. I would not use the word reformation because again reformation is to be understood in a European context; fundamentalism is to be understood in a European context. I would use the word renaissance because reformation has theological implications. I donít know whoís going to reform Islam in terms of theology.
BW: Thereís one argument that the reformer is Osama and that seems scary.
AA: No. No. No. No. Thatís not - you can rest assured or calm yourself. Osama is not accepted as a reformer by anyone. Heís a rebel figure. Heís a renegade. Heís someone whoís taking on the West and has a certain cult following; thereís no doubt about that. But heís not a reformer at all within the Islamic tradition. A reformer is someone entirely different. So what is needed in the Muslim world and needed desperately and it must come is a renaissance. Muslim society must rediscover its respect for tolerance, its respect for learning, its respect for others, for minorities and for women and that has to come.
Muslims are very conscious that they have had a long and glorious history. That they have had periods when theyíre scholars, when theyíre thinkers...
BW: They were the great mathematicians.
AA: Mathematicians, astronomers, thinkers, historians... and they look around. They look around. I mean I ask my Muslim friends tell me how many Nobel prizes you have in the Muslim world, a population of 1.3 billion Muslims, and how many Nobel prizes? Maybe two or three. Now thatís a very, very low figure. You look around and see the treatment of scholars in the Muslim world. Theyíre either killed or marginalized or humiliated or tortured or simply chased out. Many of the scholars living in the West in America or in Europe are there because theyíve been chased out. So you cannot have a society functioning normally when you are treating your scholars in this manner which is contrary to the spirit of Islam because within Islam the second most used word in the Quíran is the world Ilm, which means knowledge. God is placing knowledge just after the word God, which is the most used word in the Quíran. And that is the emphasis Islam places on knowledge and the reality is education in the Muslim world is far from satisfactory so thereís a cost and we are paying the cost in the Muslim world.
BW: In the West - I donít want to over-generalize but we have not heard of many prominent Muslim religious leaders speaking out against this violence. I wonder, is that a valid observation?
AA: It is partly valid; youíre right. Thereís a tendency in societies when they are under attack to duck their head, put their head under the parapet, not to stick it out. And even when I speak out, a lot of Muslims will tell me, Why are you speaking out? The West wonít understand in any case. They donít like Islam. They hate Islam. Theyíre on the warpath. There are these feelings in Muslim society. This does not encourage dialogue. But this is a time when Muslims must speak out. Muslims have to reach out and begin this process of dialogue.
BW: And that is your ultimate conclusion in this book, as I understand it, is that we have to engage in a global dialogue?
AA: Yes. The conclusion is that we must have a global dialogue. Iím involved in it and what I see is a lot of hope. In a rather gloomy situation I see hope.
BW: We are so accustomed, or at least I am, to think of the 21st century or itís been talked about that way as the 2nd American century and you write in your book that itís going to be the century of Islam.
AA: Itís going to be the century of Islam because Islam becomes a central player. Look at the United States of America. Where is it right now? It is in Iraq - Muslim country. It is in Afghanistan - Muslim country. Itís about to go into Pakistan, into the tribal areas - Muslim country. Who are the number one negative figures in America? Osama bin Laden, 19 hijackers, Saddam Hussein. Who are the positive figures? Pervez Musharraf, one of the most loyal allies of the United States of America. The countryís been upgraded to major non-NATO ally. Thatís Pakistan. So - very close to America. So again, positive, negative but without Islam, without an understanding of Islam the United States of America cannot function very effectively. That is why after September 11th the attitude to Islam must change in the United States of America. There must be much more understanding and sophisticated understanding; none of these sound bites that you keep hearing in the media. And a knowledge of Islam and a reaching out that becomes crucial if this war on terror has to be won.
BW: But this even in your fondest dreams is a generations-long process, isnít it?
AA: It is, Ben. But again, as a scholar I ask myself, what can I do in this battle? Thereís a war going on. Iím not sure where this war is going to head in the end, where itíll finally stop, who itís going to consume along the way, whatís going to happen along the way. These are great questions no one can answer.
BW: Akbar, just to close this out, has it been more difficult to be a Muslim in the West and specifically in the United States since 9/11?
AA: Well, on a very personal level Ben, I mean wish I had some horror stories to tell you but people...
BW: No...
AA: But people have really been very kind. Theyíve been very sympathetic. Theyíve really reached out and theyíve really made me feel very, very welcome and I have been very moved by that. And Iíve therefore responded because Iíve been working íround the clock - literally I donít think Iíve had in the last three years since the horrible event - Iíve had a peaceful 24 hours. Iíve been talking on campuses, with groups, with interfaith groups simply because I feel if I donít do this and I need hundreds and hundreds of other Muslims to be doing this, then maybe this will not happen. And if it doesnít happen, if you donít do the kind of dialogue that weíre doing then there will be an incomplete understanding of Islam and thatís very dangerous. We are living in dangerous, uncertain, violent times and the understanding of Islam becomes crucial. Again, Iím coining a phrase, 'post-honor world.' What Iím saying is that weíre living in a time when individual men can go and kill innocent women and children; completely innocent women and children... go and commit rape and yet these acts, these horrible acts are seen as quote/unquote 'honorable acts' simply because theyíre performed on the enemy. So we have given up something that all traditional societies had which is a notion of honor. And we may be, I am afraid, moving into an age which I describe as a 'post-honor world.'
BW: Okay. Thank you very much, Akbar Ahmed for joining us on Think Tank. And thank you.
  For Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg. This is PBS   ·   Think Tank Archive   ·   [FMC]